Some suggest end to school district's OCR agreement

A 41-year-old agreement that requires the Beaufort County School District to get federal approval for school boundary changes to ensure racial minorities are protected should end, some parents said Monday.

The parents said the district's agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is no longer needed and urged OCR representatives attending a meeting Monday to grant the district "unitary status," which would end OCR's oversight.

The meeting with two OCR representatives, several county Board of Education members and parents was called by the school district after the board decided to close Shell Point Elementary School 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.

Some parents were upset their children will move in 2013 from the Okatie Elementary district to Bluffton or Red Cedar elementary schools. School board members have said Okatie Elementary is nearing capacity after OCR required three predominantly black neighborhoods to be drawn into the school's attendance zone.

"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. "We understand that the board is interested in getting some finality to these decisions, so we intend to move as quickly as we can."

Office for Civil Rights to hold public meeting Monday; Oct. 14, 2011 Elementary student shift in Bluffton raises parent concerns; Sept. 27, 2011