Bill could let Jasper County parents call for takeover of school district

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comJanuary 25, 2014 

Some parents in Jasper County have been clamoring for months to shake up the leadership in a school district that has been rated the state's lowest performer.

Despite multiple rallies calling for the ouster of superintendent Vashti Washington and pleas for the state to take over the district, S.C. law doesn't allow outside involvement unless the local school board asks for it.

That could change under a bill being considered in the state legislature.

The Parent Empowerment Act was introduced last year and is before the Senate's Education Committee. If a majority of parents called for it, it would allow the S.C. Department of Education to take over a district that is mismanaged or needs assistance improving its schools, according to agency spokesman Dino Teppara.

"A transformational school district will give parents and students a new start, removing ineffective teachers and school administrators and replacing them with the right leadership," he said. "Right now, if a school board doesn't act, parents and students have no options, and we need to change that."

Community member Denise Davidson, who has organized rallies protesting the Jasper district's failing scores, said the bill could make a big difference if the state could take over at the district level.

"If you are just talking about replacing the principal, that's not going to do anything here in Jasper County because the problem we have here in our school district is with the school board and the superintendent," Davidson said. Parents' concerns frequently fall on deaf ears, she added.

State Rep. Bill Herbkersman, chairman of the Jasper County Legislative Delegation and a Bluffton Republican, agrees that the bill, which he believes could pass during this legislative session, puts more power where it is needed -- in parents' hands.

Local school district administrators can't always be trusted to make the changes, which he believes is the case in Jasper County.

"You have a school board that is in lockstep with a bad administration and gives raises to people who have shown they aren't getting any results or worse results," he said. "Some of those parents are so frustrated they can't see straight. I hope they would have this tool in their tool box."

Last month, the Jasper County school board gave Washington a satisfactory evaluation and extended her $165,000 contract despite "F" grades on federal accountability standards in each of the past two years.

State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who also represents parts of Jasper County, is skeptical the bill would achieve its intended effect. The Democrat said he also believes the Jasper County School District gets strong leadership from Washington and its board of trustees.

Besides, if parents are displeased with district-level administrators and school board members refuse to oust them, the electorate can vote in new trustees in the next election, Pinckney argues.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, like Herbkersman, said stronger action might be necessary in Jasper County, however.

"I've got faith in the children of Jasper County," he said. "But the adults and leadership in the system have shown they are not managing the dollars well to produce the student-learning outcomes that other districts with similar situations have been able to."

Attempts to interview Washington were unsuccessful, but in an email to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette she said: "I would like to thank Dr. Zais for his comments and his continued interest in the Jasper County educational system. We are proud of the improvements we have made in the district on our state report cards. ... Several of the school districts that have demonstrated improvements took more than six years to get there."

Washington joined Jasper County schools in 2010.

Multiple attempts to reach school board chairwoman Berty Riley were unsuccessful.

The bill before the legislature also would allow parents to force changes at individual schools. The bill requires that if 51 percent of parents at a failing school sign a petition, the district must acquiesce to the change the parents request, the bill says. That could include converting a school to a charter school or changing a school's leaders.

According to the bill, a failing school is one that is deemed below average or worse or is in a school district rated at-risk under the Education Accountability Act. By that standard, all public schools in Jasper County are failing.

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

Related content:

The Parent Empowerment Act

Jasper County school board gives superintendent satisfactory evaluation, December 16, 2013

Jasper County School District's appeal of 'F' grade unsuccessful, October 16, 2013

Jasper County ralliers demand action from school board, September 27, 2013

Board members show support for Jasper County superintendent, August 26, 2013

Poor school scores trigger rally in Jasper County, August 18, 2013

Jasper County school leaders flunk one test they should easily ace, December 29, 2013

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