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Schools: NAACP opposes end to federal oversight of district

By Charles Swenson

In almost 20 years of oversight of the Georgetown County School District, the U.S. Department of Justice has done nothing to end discrimination, according to the incoming president of the local NAACP chapter. But the group wants that oversight to continue, saying it provides leverage to press for needed change more than 45 years after the federal courts ordered the county schools to desegregate.

Attorneys from the Justice Department were in the district last month, touring schools and meeting with residents. It was the third visit since 2006. The school district wants to end the oversight, and its attorney said last month it may petition the federal court with or without Justice Department agreement.

“We haven’t gotten anything out of the Justice Department,” said Marvin Neal, who chairs the NAACP’s education committee and will take over as chapter president in January. But the group has a litany of complaints about hiring, facilities and educational opportunities it wants addressed, and Neal said he doesn’t think that will happen if the oversight ends.

A 1997 consent decree was approved by the U.S. District Court after the Justice Department claimed the school district had failed to abide by the terms of the 1970 desegregation order. The decree coincided with a bond referendum that funded construction of Carvers Bay High School to consolidate Pleasant Hill High and the all-black Choppee High. It requires Justice Department approval of plans to build, close, expand or “substantially renovate” any district facility. It also limits transfers of students between schools and requires racial mix of staff at each school to be within 10 percentage points of the mix in the county. And it requires that educational opportunities at the predominantly black Browns Ferry, Sampit and Plantersville elementary schools and Carvers Bay middle and high schools be “unsurpassed in the district.”

Neal and other members of the NAACP said this week they have concerns about the $165 million bond referendum approved last month, although they generally support it. They said Browns Ferry, Plantersville and Pleasant Hill elementary schools should be consolidated in a new facility, rather than “patched.”

“The community should have had the option to consider combined schools in the rural areas,” said Steve Williams, a former teacher and NAACP member.

The opening last week of Coastal Montessori Charter School has caused NAACP members to ask how the Waccamaw Neck got a new school.

“Waccamaw gets pretty much everything it wants,” said Fred Williams, an NAACP member, saying there are “a lot of deals done in the background.”

The charter is sponsored by the school district, but was approved by the state and the Justice Department. It has an independent board that obtained a federal loan to build its new facility.

The district sees Coastal Montessori as an opportunity to further integrate schools as well as offering an alternative. Although it is tuition-free like other public schools, the image of the charter school as a private school is hard to overcome, said Nathalie Hunt, the school director.

Enrollment is under way now for the next school year. Of those who have signed up, 22 percent are minorities, she said. That’s up from 5 percent last year. “It’s a more diverse pool than we’ve ever had,” Hunt said.

The Justice Department attorneys visited the new school and asked about minority recruitment. Neal said the perception is that it’s a private school. Hunt has heard that before. “To me, charter has always been public,” she said.

NAACP members say the district hires too few minorities and places too many in special-education classes. Suspensions and expulsions fall disproportionately on black males, Neal said. They account for nearly half the expulsions in the last three years, according to district records.

“There are some disparities,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said. The district tries to address the causes through counseling and character education, and he said students who are recommended for expulsion have options to continue their education.

Dozier took issue with the NAACP’s claims about inequality and claims of nepotism in the hiring of his son and his son’s fiancée as teachers. “They went through the process,” he said.

Unlike the Waccamaw schools, rural schools get federal funds to aid low-income students, Dozier noted. “Carvers Bay has as much as anybody. DOJ looked at that,” he said referring to the attorneys’ visit.

As to combining rural elementary schools, he said residents opposed that idea when he raised it a few years ago. “I took quite a beating with that.”

One issue the NAACP didn’t raise was test scores. On state standardized tests last year, the percentage of black students in grades three through eight who didn’t meet the standards in English and math was two to three times higher than the percentage of white students, according to results released this fall. In fourth-grade English and seventh-grade math, half the black students tested didn’t meet the standard.

Among students who scored at the highest level on those tests, the gap between white and black students ranged between 15 and 20 percentage points. In no grade did more than 5 percent of black students score “exemplary” in English or math. Only in seventh-grade English did white students fall below 15 percent with “exemplary” scores.

Asked about that, Neal said “there are some serious problems.”

“There’s clearly a gap,” Dozier said. “We have to work on that.”

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