Beaufort News

Office for Civil Rights to hold public meeting Monday

Parents and others concerned about recent school closings and shifting boundaries can voice their opinions Monday to representatives from the federal government.

The Beaufort County School District invited officials from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to visit after the school board decided to close Shell Point Elementary and changed some attendance boundaries near Okatie Elementary. OCR is charged with ensuring equal access to education for all races.

School board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said Monday's meeting is mostly meant to be informational. OCR representatives will give an overview of the district's agreement and describe the office's role in recent school board decisions.

"They have said they will not respond to specific questions, but are very interested in hearing concerns or comments," Washington said.

The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the Beaufort-Jasper Academy of Career Excellence.

The district operates under a 40-year-old desegregation order requiring OCR approval of any changes the school board makes that might affect a school's racial composition.

If the district doesn't comply with the office's rulings, federal funding could be cut, school district spokesman Jim Foster said. The district receives about $24 million a year in federal funds.

But complying with OCR standardscan create other problems, some school board members say. Recent attendance boundary shifts for Okatie Elementary illustrate their point.

Several years ago, three predominately black neighborhoods were drawn into Okatie Elementary's attendance zone to balance the school's demographics, school board vice chairman George Wilson said.

But now Okatie Elementary's population is nearing capacity, so some of its students will be moved next year to Bluffton Elementary School.

When parents learned of the change, they were concerned.

Wilson contends that if the students hadn't been moved in to Okatie Elementary several years ago, it wouldn't be nearly full now.

In at least one instance, OCR has relented on its strict standards at parents' request, according to Earl Campbell, the longest serving member of the school board.

About 10 years ago, OCR representatives met with parents who made the case for schools in the Seabrook area. Without those local meetings, Campbell said, Whale Branch elementary, middle and high schools -- which have large black student populations -- wouldn't have been approved because their racial composition isn't in line with the rest of the district.

Campbell said parents told OCR they'd prefer predominately black schools over sending their children farther from home for school.

"We told them, 'We do not mind that. We don't care as long as you have the same type of education,' " Campbell said.

It's possible the concerns of parents could sway the office's decision, but both Wilson and Campbell said that's not something to count on.

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content:

Elementary student shift in Bluffton raises parent concerns; Sept. 27, 2011

Board to move some fifth graders to Robert Smalls Middle School next year; Oct. 4, 2011

School board votes to close Shell Point Elementary next year; Aug. 15, 2011

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