Parents urged members of a federal office Monday to investigate the effect closing Shell Point Elementary and moving fifth-graders to Robert Smalls Middle School would have on the racial composition of Beaufort County public schools.
"If Shell Point Elementary School is closed and the students begin to be shifted into new school zones, have the Beaufort County Board of Education and the school district administration conducted studies as to the racial dispositions of each school that will be affected?" Shell Point parent Lisa Kindwall said.
The meeting Monday with two representatives of the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, several Beaufort County Board of Education members and parents was called by the school district after the board decided to close Shell Point Elementary and change some attendance boundaries near Okatie Elementary School.
OCR is charged with ensuring equal access to education for all races. The district has had a desegregation agreement with OCR since 1970, in which OCR must approve any changes the school board makes that might affect a school's racial composition.
Several parents urged the school board to consider rezoning the entire Battery Creek High School cluster, which they say lost many students after Whale Branch elementary, middle and high schools opened.
"The Whale Branch cluster pulled students from our schools, which was fine. But you never replaced them. It left Robert Smalls Middle School and Battery Creek High looking like virtual ghost towns," said Cathy Emmert, who has students in first and third grade at Shell Point and in ninth grade at Battery Creek.
Some parents said the district's agreement with OCR is no longer needed and urged OCR to grant the district "unitary status," which would end OCR's oversight.
"We are prioritizing who these children are attending school with more than their education and psychological well-being," said Sue Harvey, who has two children and lives in a neighborhood that was recently rezoned from Okatie Elementary to Bluffton Elementary.
School board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said moving to unitary status isn't easy. Several guidelines must be met.
"There are some entrenched ideas and thoughts and beliefs that we've got to have changed in order to move us toward that status," Washington said.
If the district doesn't comply with OCR's rulings, about $24 million a year in federal funding could be cut.
Howard Kallem, a representative from OCR's office in Washington, D.C., and Martha Russo, from the office's location in Dallas, Texas, said they would listen to parents' concerns and pass them along as OCR considers whether to approve the school board's actions.
"We have taken notes, and we will share those notes," Kallem said at the close of the meeting. "We understand that the board is interested in getting some finality to these decisions, so we intend to move as quickly as we can."