The Beaufort County Board of Education reassured local NAACP members Monday evening that it has not abandoned the Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence, despite its plans to leave the technical school's governance by the summer.
A plan to guide the future of ACE after June 2016 should alleviate the concerns of those who worry the failure of the school would be detrimental to Jasper County and minority students, several board members said Monday evening. Those board members, though, could not share details of that plan just yet.
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The special-called meeting at ACE, which lasted two and a half hours, was held at the request of members of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton and Ridgeland branches of the NAACP.
On Tuesday, members of both school boards will receive a recommendation for the school that evolved during eight meetings of an ACE transition team this summer. Then, on Oct. 19, both boards will meet at ACE to discuss the plan ahead of independent votes.
While the Beaufort County board voted in October 2014 to leave the governance of ACE by this summer -- while expanding career- and technology-education offerings in its own high schools -- students will still be able to attend ACE for programs such as cosmetology and esthetics.
The district will no longer be required to pay two-thirds of ACE's budget, though it will still contribute an undetermined amount of money for every Beaufort County student who decides to attend.
And there has been no discussion or vote, members stressed, of "pulling out" or "withdrawing" from ACE.
Many residents believed just that, NAACP representatives said at the start of Monday night's meeting.
"At this point in time, we are concerned that Beaufort County is deserting its promise and the children of Jasper County will suffer because we will not have the funding to replace what was promised years, decades ago," said Richie Reed, president of the Ridgeland branch of the NAACP. "We are here to ask why."
When board member JoAnn Orischak responded that Monday's meeting may be premature, as she and other transition team members can't share their specific solutions to ACE's woes, Reed bristled.
She called on the ACE board to hold town hall meetings so black and Hispanic parents in Jasper County could share their thoughts on the school's future, no matter how late in the process.
"Now you know there are concerns that folks want to address," Reed said. " ... When you have constituents who have been so disenfranchised, then you should reach out as fervently as you reach out when you are elected. And obviously that has not happened."
In answering Reed's questions, some members referenced the problems with ACE's board.
Comprising three members from each school board, ACE's governance generally has clashing visions, agendas and budgets, and getting a vote has been like "pulling teeth and nails," said Laura Bush, who previously served on the ACE school board.
Others spoke of the school's failure to measure up to Beaufort County's growing standards.
The school was rated average on the most recent state report card. While that was an improvement over its "below average" ratings in 2013 and 2012, none of the state's 40 career centers were rated that poorly in 2014.
ACE's 2014 report card also stated the school has a 92.1 percent placement rate, representing 279 students who found placement in postsecondary institution, military or employment over a three-year period.
Some board members doubted that placement rate, provided by Hilton Head-Bluffton NAACP branch committee member Richard Ritter.
Others said the success of the school has already been proven.
"There are students in Beaufort and Jasper counties that need to come to ACE because they can't make it in Beaufort or Jasper schools," board member Earl Campbell said.
Before the meeting, ACE Director Jerry Henderson said he remains focused on educating students.
"We're just going to make sure we keep doing that job," he said. "We want to continue here. That's what we want, and we want to continue to provide for our students and be the most career ready we can be."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.
- TCL hopes to take over financially strapped Beaufort-Jasper ACE, September 9, 2015