Jasper County ralliers demand action from school board

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comSeptember 27, 2013 

Jasper County School superintendent Vashti Washington

SUBMITTED PHOTOGRAPH

With two rallies already under their belt and a third scheduled for today, some parents and community members hope the Jasper County school board is feeling the pressure.

Denise Davidson, who has organized the rallies, said their message is clear -- the Jasper County School District's back-to-back "F" grades on federal report cards are unacceptable, and superintendent Vashti Washington must go.

So how do they effect the desired changes?

"I think that the only way to do this is to get people involved and let them just see what is going on in our schools," Davidson said. "I think the pressure needs to be put on the school board -- I don't know any other way to do it."

The ralliers have demanded the S.C. Department of Education declare a "state of education emergency" in Jasper County. However, state Superintendent Mick Zais said during a visit to the county at the beginning of September that, by law, the state cannot simply take over the district.

"There is nothing the state Department of Education can do to remove a local superintendent," said Laura Bayne, director of legislative and public affairs. "Really, only the citizens who elected the school board have any jurisdiction."

Similarly, Zais has said the future of the district -- which received the lowest score in the state on federal accountability standards -- lies with the community.

Some members of the Jasper County Legislative Delegation have echoed that belief.

State Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, who attended the first rally in August, said he is happy to see people from the county getting involved and demanding better for their children.

"Unfortunately there is no magic bullet, but obviously the overall scores are not acceptable," Newton said. "My constituents are very clear in communicating to me that they are dissatisfied with that score, and they want more from all of us involved in the process of public education."

However, the vice chairman of the local delegation, state Rep. Bill Bowers, D- Hampton, said there is nothing the legislators can do other than draw attention to the situation.

"The superintendent is totally in the hands of the electorate, as they elect the school board," Bowers said. "The delegation has no jurisdiction."

The school board has the power to hire and fire the superintendent and thus far has refused to do so.

Attempts this week to reach Washington and board Chairwoman Berty Riley were unsuccessful. Other board members deferred questions to Riley.

Newton said it is the job of the school board as elected officials to listen and respond to the community.

"Elected officials work for the people, and when there is an undeniable problem or failing in the government, the folks in those positions to address those issues need to be held accountable," he said. "There needs to be a reaction and response -- how are we going to fix this problem and admitting that there is one."

Washington has said that the "F" grade didn't matter. Riley also has come to Washington's defense, arguing that a new state grading system uses calculations that paint a deceptive portrait of the district, its students and Washington's efforts.

The district says it is implementing a new "improvement plan" focusing on student achievement throughout the county.

However, Davidson said many of the methods in the plan are ones Washington implemented when she first came to the district in 2011, and "all we have seen is an increase in the failing scores."

Davidson said she has about half of the 1,500 signatures she is hoping to collect for a petition to have Washington removed. She is sure they will gather more at today's rally at 10 a.m. at Harold Turpin Park in Ridgeland. She said she is hopeful that might make the board listen.

"For someone reason why, the school board is not responding to the lack of outcomes," she said.


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Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

By the numbers

The Jasper County School District's performance on recent federal report cards.

  • 2013 federal report card grade: F / 27.3 points
  • 2012 federal report card grade: F / 39.5 points

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