Education chief seizes control of failing, rural S.C. school district

SC schools chief takes over failing district

SC Superintendent Molly Spearman talks June 19, 2017 about the state taking over Allendale County School District.
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SC Superintendent Molly Spearman talks June 19, 2017 about the state taking over Allendale County School District.

South Carolina’s schools chief is taking control of Allendale County schools – declaring a “state of emergency” in the poor, rural district, which has one of the state’s worst academic records.

“Too often it seems education has been about serving the interest of adults rather than the needs of students in our classrooms,” S.C. education Superintendent Molly Spearman said Monday.

“Management decisions that put self-interest ahead of our students’ achievement are unacceptable. I will not stand by while students get left behind because of the poor decision-making of adults.”

Spearman’s state takeover signals a more aggressive approach to fixing failing S.C. schools, a tactic that hasn’t been attempted since 1999.

The takeover comes as lawmakers and state leaders work to find ways to fix the state’s poor, rural schools. In 2014, the S.C. Supreme Court said those schools violated the state’s Constitution by failing to provide students with a quality education.

Spearman will control the district’s operations, including its finances and personnel decisions. The district’s elected school board members will remain in office but will have no authority, Spearman said.

The takeover comes after the Education Department tried to boost the district’s flagging schools.

Last school year, the Education Department:

▪ Paid for three full-time transformation coaches at the district’s elementary, middle and high schools

▪ Gave extra money to each Allendale school — $140,000 and $20 per student for technical assistance

▪ Gave Allendale-Fairfax High $220,000 to start a New Tech program that teaches project-based learning

“While we acknowledge that the district needs help, we believe that all parties should work together for the good of our children and families,” Allendale school board chairwoman Patricia Jenkins said in a statement issued Monday night.

Spearman named Walter Tobin, a retired educator from nearby Blackville, as superintendent of the school district. In coming weeks, Spearman said she and Tobin will meet with school employees, parents and the wider community.

Takeover not first choice

Spearman said she decided to take over the district after the Allendale school board refused to sign an agreement with the Education Department, outlining how the two would work together to improve management and academic performance.

Allendale school board members also refused to let Spearman present information about the district’s academic performance at a meeting. Instead, Spearman held a public meeting. There, she said, she heard from frustrated parents.

State Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, a Democrat who represents part of Allendale County, said Republican Spearman acted as a last resort. “She tried every other option,” Bright Matthews said.

“It’s really come down to some of the members of the school board not wanting to give up control. And, quite frankly, we have to not worry about who’s calling the shots, but worry about the test scores in the district and the performance of these students.”

Spearman said the district’s academic performance has failed to improve despite receiving more than $17,000 a year for each student in federal, state and local money – more than most districts receive.

“We will take corrective action and ensure that every tax dollar is spent transparently in ways that improve student academic achievement,” Spearman said.

Allendale schools have had strong principals and superintendents before, Spearman said. But, she added, when those leaders have tried to make changes to improve schools, the school board has interfered.

The move marks the second time in two decades that the state has taken control of Allendale schools.

In 1999, then-state schools chief Inez Tenenbaum, a Columbia Democrat, took over the district, defying what she called a “belligerent” school board that stirred up community opposition to the state takeover.

This time is different, Spearman said, citing support from parents. She also said she plans to work with the district’s teachers and administrators, instead of bringing in outsiders – another criticism of the 1999 takeover.

Last year, Spearman took over two Timmonsville schools in Florence County.

The People Sentinel contributed. Jamie Self: 803-771-8658, @jamiemself

State seizes failing district

What happened? S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said Monday that she is taking over the Allendale County School District

Why? Spearman cited the district’s persistently poor academic performance

Why does it matter? The takeover signals an aggressive approach to fixing failing S.C. schools. The last school district takeover was in 1999.

What does the district get? Professional development for teachers, assistance from full- and part-time Education Department staffers, expanded access to 4-year-old kindergarten and assistance meeting federal and state requirements

Public Statement

Today the Allendale County School Board was notified by letter from the State Superintendent of Education that she is declaring a State of Emergency in the Allendale County School District. While we acknowledge that the District needs help, we believe that all parties should work together for the good of our children and families.

The State Superintendent’s declaration comes after the District’s devoted cooperation over the last several weeks in an effort to agree on an approach to coordinate our efforts to improve student achievement with the assistance of the State Department. Unfortunately, Ms. Spearman has reached a decision that seeks to diminish the governance of the Board and remove the management authority of the District’s leadership. We believe that the citizens of Allendale County elected the Board to carry out the educational mission entrusted to them within the District. Moreover, we believe that the community expects the Board to operate within the law and take all measures reasonable and necessary to assure that Allendale, which includes the Board, our community, and our children, is respected under the law.

Patricia Jenkins, Allendale County Schools Board Chair