Georgetown school district continues lengthy quest to lift desegregation order

The Georgetown County School District intends to respond by the end of this week to U.S. Department of Justice questions as part of the district’s ongoing efforts to get a federal desegregation order lifted.

District Superintendent Randy Dozier said he requested full or partial relief from the order several years ago, and that request started what has been a lengthy question-and-answer process with DOJ. Dozier said the district has met the requirements of the order and will continue to make progress, but the district would like to move forward. He said resources going toward DOJ reporting could be better utilized elsewhere in the district.

The desegregation order, issued in 1997, addressed DOJ concerns with inequality in facilities, staffing and racial balance. Georgetown County Schools is one of about one-third of school districts statewide that are under some kind of order, said the school district’s attorney Dave Duff of Duff, White and Turner in Columbia.

The two Carvers Bay schools were constructed to serve middle and high school students in the Choppee and Pleasant Hill communities as a result of the order, and Duff said the district currently is in compliance on staff and facilities.

More than half of district schools, however, have a racial imbalance, according to a district attendance zone study done in May by Wilbur Smith Associates. The study said the imbalance “is due to a variety of reasons, many of which are outside the range of feasible district action.”

Dozier said the county’s geography and demographics, along with the push for school choice, have been major obstacles in that area. He said the district has done all it can do, although lifting the order would not mean the district would not continue to make progress on its initiatives.

“I think the district has worked in good faith to resolve those issues,” Dozier said. “I really would expect we could get some relief.”

Several attempts were made to reach DOJ officials, who declined comment.

Of the district’s 18 schools, the study said 11 were out of balance: Brown’s Ferry, Maryville, McDonald, Plantersville, Sampit and Waccamaw elementary schools; Waccamaw Intermediate School; Carvers Bay and Waccamaw middle schools; and Carvers Bay and Waccamaw high schools.

At all but four of those schools, students were predominantly black, with Brown’s Ferry (98.7 percent) and Plantersville (100 percent) having the highest percentages of black students. More than 70 percent of students at the four Waccamaw schools – elementary, intermediate, middle and high – were white.

Dozier said his biggest focus is on academic achievement, and his district showed gains on its 2012 state report card. For the first time, the district received an absolute rating of excellent, meaning its performance substantially exceeded the standards for progress, and all of its schools had absolute ratings of average or above, meaning they met or exceeded state standards.

Plantersville resident Marvin Neal sent his children through Georgetown County schools, and he has been involved with various groups such as the Plantersville School Improvement Council and the booster club at Carvers Bay. He said while racial balance is a concern, he thinks schools have achieved their goals, especially at Plantersville and Brown’s Ferry. On their state report cards, Brown’s Ferry raised its absolute rating to average and earned a B for performance that exceeds the state’s expectations. Plantersville maintained an absolute rating of average, earned an A for substantially exceeding state expectations and was a Palmetto Silver award winner.

“I think we’ve done tremendously with what we have available, and I would like to see more black teachers in Plantersville,” said Neal, adding he would rather have a good teacher rather than one less qualified but hired because of race. He also would not be in favor of students having to travel a long distance to school and said it is important “to keep our children in the community – that has always worked for us.”

While Neal understands the challenges the school district faces, he said he felt that the segregation order still serves a purpose in a watchdog capacity.

“We have a good school district, a good superintendent and a good group of principals,” Neal said, “but Dr. Dozier is not going to always be there. [The order has] served a purpose in the past, and we have to make sure the effort at least continues.”

The attendance zone study outlines physical barriers that separate some communities and limit the ability to balance some schools’ population.

It cites geographic features that would hamper student travel around the county, such as the location of the Waccamaw Neck, which is separated from the rest of Georgetown County by the Waccamaw River and Winyah Bay. It said there is also a federal guideline limit of 90 minutes for the time a student is allowed to ride a bus, which appears reasonable but doesn’t take into account the time for multiple stops and indirect routes.

The county also has lost some of its younger population, according to a population analysis by the University of South Carolina. It said that while Georgetown County increased its 55+ residents from 2000-10, it lost 11.7 percent of its 20- to 44-year-olds and about the same percentage of those 5 to 19 years old. It said most of the growth in the older group occurred in the Waccamaw Neck area, while losses from the younger group were countywide.

The population breakdown of Georgetown County is 62 percent white, 33.5 percent black, 3.1 percent Hispanic and 1.4 percent other, according to the 2010 Census. For school-age children, ages 5-17, the population is 50.5 percent white, 42.7 percent black, 4.3 percent Hispanic and 2.5 percent other.

Duff said there have been some concerns about student transfers, although they are allowed for specified reasons, such as for the children of school district employees. He said a significant reason transfers have been requested has been for adequate child care, which is not always readily available in rural areas.

The district is also communicating with DOJ on a separate but similar issue of Coastal Montessori Charter School, which just opened this fall, Duff said.

The charter school, which is publicly funded and open to all students, is under the umbrella of the district but able to operate with a certain amount of autonomy from state regulations. It is being housed temporarily at Waccamaw Middle School, but Duff said the school’s officials are considering a permanent site just north of Georgetown and considerably south of its current site.

Duff said the district was given an extension on its latest report to DOJ because of a fire that occurred in his Columbia office, but the process has been lengthy because DOJ sometimes takes several months to come back with a response. He said the district has made more consistent efforts over the last year to bring about a resolution to what has become a lengthy process.

“The law is that districts must to the greatest extent practicable remove vestiges of the prior dual system, and we think we’ve really done that,” Duff said. “We think we’ve met the standard and are hoping DOJ will agree.”