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Schools: District and Justice Department agree to end federal oversight
By Charles Swenson
The Georgetown County School District and the U.S. Department of Justice will ask the federal District Court to end 47 years of oversight aimed at ensuring that the quality of children’s education isn’t determined by their race. The move follows more than a decade of efforts to lift a court order stemming from desegregation suit brought in the 1960s.
The school board this week approved a joint motion with the Justice Department to end federal review of school facilities, after-school activities and transportation. The court will continue to supervise student and staff assignments for compliance with a desegregation order first adopted in 1970, but the district plans to seek an end to oversight in those areas as well.
“This is a very important, significant step,” said David Duff, attorney for the school district. He said it is “completely supported by the Department of Justice.”
The district is seeking “unitary status,” saying it has complied with previous court orders, eliminated the vestiges of discrimination “to the extent practicable” and shown “good-faith commitment” to laws that prompted the court’s intervention.
The school board adopted a resolution that affirms the “continued implementation of non-discriminatory policies and the avoidance of any official action that has the effect of perpetuating or re-establishing a dual school system.”
Nearly 44 percent of the district’s students are African-American, according to enrollment data provided to the state at the end of the last school year. But black students account for over two-thirds of the enrollment at four schools. At the five schools on Waccamaw Neck, less than a third of students are black.
“We’re not going to ignore what the consent decree had or the order had,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said. “I know people are concerned that you would just forget about it.”
Duff pointed out that the geography and demographics of the county make it virtually impossible for schools to reflect racial mix of the county as a whole. “Some things you really can’t improve,” Dozier said. “Especially when you’re losing population in the western part of the county, where we’ve lost a tremendous amount of students.”
The district first petitioned the Justice Department in 2006 seeking unitary status. The agreement on facilities, extracurricular activities and transportation emerged from a review by Justice Department attorneys last year. “One thing we dealt with over the course of those 10 years was a constant revolving door at DOJ,” Duff said. “Not 10 years of corrective action. It’s been 10 years of no action on the part of DOJ.”
The federal court has reviewed the 1970 desegregation plan in the past. In 1997, as the district prepared for a bond referendum and capital program, the Justice Department brought suit saying the district had failed to comply with previous desegregation orders. The consent decree in that case led, among other things, to the consolidation of the all-black Choppee High School, housed in a building from the 1950s, with Pleasant Hill High to form Carvers Bay High. The consent decree also required the district to ensure that the educational opportunities at three predominantly-black rural elementary schools “are unsurpassed in the district.”
If the court agrees, the district will no longer have to seek approval for construction and renovations of its facilities, as it did following last year’s school bond referendum. The current facilities “provide reasonably similar accommodations for student and educational needs, regardless of the racial demographics,” the proposed joint motion states.
Participation in extracurricular activities and bus routes are not based on race, the motion states.
Getting unitary status for student and staff assignments is more complex, Duff said. There is more information to provide and the district is in the process of submitting it.
In recent years, the district has considered changes to school attendance areas, possible consolidation of two rural schools with under 200 students each and shifting sixth grades from middle schools. All would require Justice Department approval.
The 1997 consent decree also requires that school staff reflect the racial makeup of the county as a whole – which is about 40 percent black – plus or minus 10 percent. That makes hiring difficult, Dozier said. A 2016 report to the state showed less than 15 percent of the district’s teachers were black.
Removing federal oversight will give the district more control over its operations and free up some staff time and resources that are now allocated to reporting on compliance. “I think it improves morale in the district and the community,” said Lindsey Ann Thompson, the district’s in-house attorney.
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