State Sued for Seizing Control of Failing School District

State Sued for Seizing Control of Failing School District

COLUMBIA, SC. (AP) -- The worst-performing school district in South Carolina says in a lawsuit that the state education chief unconstitutionally seized control from the locally elected board in the state's latest takeover of the district.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday asks the state Supreme Court to directly take the case and restore the Allendale County school board's authority pending a ruling. It comes two days after state Superintendent Molly Spearman declared a state of emergency and immediately took over the rural county's four schools.

"The board recognizes the district needs help but not at the cost of relegating local educational interests to the state's unlimited control," Allendale County board Chairwoman Patricia Jenkins said in a statement.

Since 1998, state law has allowed the Education Department to take over persistently failing schools or districts.
Nineteen years after the Legislature passed the Education Accountability Act, Allendale County remains the only district where the state has seized control.
A clause the Legislature inserted into recent budgets sped up the process—letting Spearman make the decision directly.

The school district argues the state budget can't give that power because an elected board's right to govern and spend state money "does not reasonably and inherently relate to the raising and spending of tax monies."

Spearman said the state has a constitutional and moral responsibility to educate students, and she acted "in response to continued poor academic achievement, financial mismanagement, and a public outcry from parents."

"I believe this power was granted to address cases of gross mismanagement and to protect South Carolina's most valuable resource, our children," she said. "Providing a high quality education to our students is far too important to the future of our state to wait for an extensive bureaucratic process or to allow resistance from adults who would like to maintain the unacceptable status quo."

Student performance in one of the state's poorest counties has remained at or near the bottom for decades. The state last seized control of the county's schools in 1999. While scores improved, the district still rated "at risk"—the worst grade on state report cards—when the local board regained full authority in 2007.

Last year, more than 80 percent of students in grades three through eight did not meet expectations on math and reading state-standardized tests. And not a single 11th grader received an overall ACT score considered "college ready."

Jenkins said board members are committed to working with the state but must retain the governing authority voters gave them.

Spearman'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," she said in another statement, adding that the community expects the board to do what's necessary to assure that Allendale "is respected under the law.

Earlier this month, Spearman held a community forum to present the options after the board un-invited her to its meeting. The board could have avoided a takeover by signing the state's proposed improvement plan but refused to do so, she said.

Spearman's predecessors avoided takeovers, partly because the backlash stirred up by Allendale County officials the last time made the task increasingly challenging.

Spearman believes a different strategy and parental backing will produce better results this time.
State aid without management control has not worked in Allendale County, she said.

Over the last five years, the state has given Allendale County $2.8 million in additional aid, which doesn't include extra training and stipends provided by the state.

According to the state's fiscal affairs office, the district received nearly $17,200 for each of its roughly 1,200 students last school year in combined state, local and federal money, ranking its per-pupil funding the sixth-highest statewide.