THE LAST TIME South Carolina tried to rescue the Allendale County schools, the drowning residents didn’t just refuse to grab the life preserver; they yelled obscenities at the state as they threw it back.
School board members whipped the community into a frenzy, and then-state Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum was attacked as a racist and a bigot for … well, for recognizing that the board members either couldn’t or wouldn’t see to it that their kids got a decent education. That is, for caring enough to try to help get those kids a decent education.
Allendale was the first test of our state’s then-new accountability law, which set tough but realistic goals for student achievement long before the Congress twisted that same idea into a national joke with the Lake Wobegon-inspired No Child Left Behind law (all children must be above average).
Although the Allendale schools eventually improved enough for the state to justify handing control back to the elected school board, they never improved enough. The schools were still rated “at risk” when the board resumed full control in 2007, and Ms. Tenenbaum’s complaint that the “belligerent” school board made the already-difficult job even tougher was remarkable understatement.
Ms. Tenenbaum learned her lesson, and her successors learned it too: Don’t expect people to thank you for trying to help them when you disrupt the local power structure that has refused to help them.
So for nearly two decades, no state superintendent tried to take over a local school district, although a lot of children would be a lot better off today if they had. Check that: The children would be better off if the state had taken over their districts and the school boards hadn’t tried at every turn to sabotage the state’s efforts.
Now the state is trying again to save students by intervening in our worst-performing school district — in Allendale again.
Actually, it’s the second attempt in the past year. But the school board in tiny Florence District 4 welcomed the efforts of state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, who in a previous life was a Saluda County school teacher. Signed a memorandum of understanding that gives her shared authority. And a year into that agreement, Ms. Spearman told me this week, “we’re seeing student gains on assessments, morale is up, parental participation is up.”
Because, apparently, the Florence 4 school board members care about providing a decent education to their students.
And the school board members in Allendale County? Well, apparently they have other priorities.
Ms. Spearman met with the board members in April and told them she was likely to declare a state of emergency, “and they asked if I would just come and work with them, and I said of course, if y’all will sign a memorandum.” That’s where the conversation ended: “They wanted the technical support, but they would not agree to the changes in leadership. They would not give up any authority.”
It’s easy to understand why some elected officials so jealously guard their power; there can be a lot in it for them. But it’s tough to wrap your mind around why part-time school board members, overseeing a district that is so clearly failing its students, would refuse to temporarily yield power to state officials in return for not only expertise but also money.
Is it simply arrogance? Or is it related to the fact that in many struggling communities, the school district is the largest employer? Is it because some people run for the school board in order to become a job provider for their relatives and friends?
School board members aren’t supposed to be involved in the hiring or firing of anyone except the superintendent. But in many of our most troubled school districts, they are —in much the same way that individual Columbia City Council members once were notorious for pulling strings to get people hired and fired in the city, in much the same way some state legislators pull strings in state agencies that they’re not supposed to have any control over except as part of the entire Legislature, through legislation.
And if the superintendent refuses to make the personnel decisions that the school board members demand, they exercise the one personnel decision they have a legal right to exercise: They fire the superintendent.
In that meeting with Allendale school board members in April, Ms. Spearman said, “I explained to them that I’m from a small district, and I understand when the district is the largest employer in the community” and people are always hitting up school board members for jobs. But, she insisted, “You have to give the jobs to those who are most qualified.”
The board’s response made it clear to Ms. Spearman that it was not willing to stop meddling, and to make the needed changes to improve the education it provides its students. So on Monday, she declared the district in a state of emergency and took it over, so the state could do that.
And two days after Ms. Spearman threw the district another life preserver, the board members asked the state Supreme Court to throw it back at her — and order her to go away and let them drown in peace.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.