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Schools: District hopes Justice Department visit helps end federal oversight

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Thomas Falkinburg, attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, couldn’t comment.

David Duff, attorney for the Georgetown County School District, thought he was impressed with what he saw in a two day tour of county schools. The district hopes that Falkinburg liked what he saw enough to recommend that the Justice Department end its oversight of the district that dates from a federal court’s desegregation order in the 1970s. Under a consent decree with the department, district schools are required to have a racial balance within 10 percent of the balance of the county as a whole, which was 34 percent black, 62 percent white in the 2010 census. Over half the county’s schools don’t meet that target, but the district has tried for the last three years to convince the Justice Department it has done all it can to reach that goal.

“In large part, the imbalance is simply due to where different people live in the county, which is mostly a result of large-scale population and growth trends,” according to a 2012 study of attendance areas commissioned by the district to support its quest for “unitary status.”

Each time the district has sent information to the Justice Department the agency has replied with more questions. Superintendent Randy Dozier has said it’s a frustrating process that he hoped to change by getting Falkinburg to see the county, its schools and its geography.

“I’ve been to South Carolina before, but not to this particular area,” Falkinburg said after a tour of Waccamaw Middle and Coastal Montessori Charter schools this week. Other questions would have to go through the public affairs office, he said.

Coastal Montessori needs Justice Department approval to build a school on Highway 17 at Allston Plantation. As a district school, it is covered by the consent decree.

Falkinburg and a law clerk, Jessica Baker, went to the 7.9 acre tract the charter school has under contract for $695,000. Nathalie Hunt, the school director, said the visitors noted that there isn’t much property between Georgetown and the proposed site that’s available for construction. Falkinburg has suggested in letters to the district that Georgetown would be a better place for the school, but said the agency didn’t object to a location at the Prince George property that the school first considered.

“It was encouraging that they were willing to come to the new site,” Hunt said. “They can see the challenge that we’re presented with.”

The charter school’s attendance doesn’t meet the goals of the consent decree either. Black students account for 9 percent of its enrollment. But because the charter school is a public school, it’s open to all students in the county and the school’s board wants to recruit more minority students. Kristin Bohan, the Coastal Montessori founder, made the case to Falkinburg that public Montessori schools are a way to provide opportunities to minority students. Hunt cited test data from the two-year-old charter school that shows its students from low-income families are already performing above the average in reading and math, which prompted a nod from Falkinburg.

The school is seeking a $5 million loan from the federal Rural Development agency to buy a site and build a 25,000-square-foot building. “Everything is pending Justice Department approval,” Bohan said.

Falkinburg and Baker went to all 17 district schools. “I think they were impressed with everything they’ve seen,” Duff said. “All the schools are equal.”

It took the district more than a year to arrange the visit. “It was a really successful and meaningful visit,” Duff said.

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