District Continues to Stonewall

March 18, 2014

Inside Insight

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confidentialA month ago, I explained how I other parents are suing the Anderson School District 5 Board of Trustees and the Superintendent for multiple violations of the Freedom of Information (FOIA) and violation of the terms of a public bond referendum. Those bond funds, in part, were collected for the stated purpose of “making improvements, renovations and additions to Southwood Middle School in order to convert such school to an Arts Magnet School (grades 6 through 12) [emphasis mine].”

 

Southwood Middle School was one of the three historic black schools in the district, and is the only school remaining within the Anderson city boundaries. Since the Academy of the Arts was established, it has become one of the highest performing schools in the county, has one of the largest minority populations of any school in the district, and until September 2013 was scheduled to add a ninth grade next year. This long-standing plan was in place to make available an integrated 6-12th grade arts magnet academy, that infuses the arts and creativity into all core courses, to all students in the district.

 

In September 2013, the Board of Trustees held an unannounced and secret discussion in Executive Session, to discuss eliminating seven years of planning for the Southwood expansion. They then immediately voted on this after coming out of Executive Session. We parents quickly became convinced that members of the board and the Superintendent were not short on funds, as they claimed, but that they were opposed to the idea of an arts magnet school serving the population that it does, and wanted to ensure that funds and students were poured into the traditional high schools to build a statewide competitive football program.

 

A month ago, we had not received any of the documents required by the multiple FOIA requests to the District Five Board of Trustees. The district finally allowed us access to a portion of these documents, but continues to refuse access to some of the most important documents – communication, particularly emails, that we believe will provide evidence to support our claims. There have been two hearings on the case, at one of which our request for a restraining order against the district was denied. The judge in that instance ruled that since politicians make promises and break them all the time (specifically referring to the bond language), he couldn’t order them to comply with the language of that bond. (We hold the right to appeal this decision for now.) He did state that he thought the FOIA claims had a better chance of succeeding.

 

Following that ruling, a series of depositions were held with Superintendent Wilson: a former trustee who quit to apply for the athletic director positions he had voted to create, Dick Smith; Al Norris, a trustee who lives in the Southwood neighborhood and who proposed the language of the bond referendum; and myself. These depositions are now part of the public record, and they were highly instructive.

 

Mr. Smith admitted that the trustees and Superintendent had discussed canceling the Southwood conversion at a summer retreat (for which we can find no notice in the public papers, district claims to the contrary) in June 2013. He also stated that Southwood was a school where “those people won’t send their children with the kids in that neighborhood. I taught there in the ‘70s, and that’s what I base my answer on.” The kids in that neighborhood are generally poor and minority. “Those people” in Mr. Smith’s answer are mostly white parents from other parts of Anderson. Mr. Wilson’s deposition was even more interesting. When asked if he had ever read the Strategic Plan (required by law and voted on by the Board of Trustees) that lays out the schedule for the Southwood conversion, he stated that he had not. Mr. Wilson also denied unilaterally changing the Strategic Plan, or that the Board of Trustees voted on changes. But we now have two different Strategic Plans in our possession, one of which does not have voting information affixed to the front.

 

When asked if he knew the Department of Education’s definition of a magnet school, he stated that he thought it only meant a school with a theme (all schools in the district would then be magnet schools). Magnet schools came about as a way of providing quality and unique education to students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and promote learning by infusing all education with the arts, science and technology, or other learning modes. When Mr. Wilson was asked if he knew how the Arts in Basic Curriculum grant that Southwood holds was applied for, or what its requirements are, he seemed to never have heard of the grant (which requires an arts council and was applied for with Southwood as a 6-12 grade arts magnet academy).

 

Mr. Wilson also doesn’t seem to realize that the district has current  accreditation documents listing Southwood as a 6-12 grade arts magnet academy. He doesn’t know the requirements of the Educational Improvement Act, nor does he understand the requirements that limit what may be discussed in Executive Session, what actions are required to be noticed to the public or what limits the state places on his own position. He even claimed to be unaware that the District had received a tax windfall of two and a half million dollars.

 

Given what we have learned of the district’s practices, we wonder how any taxpayer in Anderson District Five could ever vote for a school bond or new tax again. The county is set to vote on a 1 percent sales tax in order to pay back (read: get from under the requirements of) the current school bonds in several districts. Superintendent Wilson promoted this idea to the District Five Board of Trustees by stating that we could have Georgians pay for our schools here, just like he had Alabamans pay for schools when he was a superintendent in Georgia. Leaving aside the sheer crassness of such statements, how can any Anderson County taxpayer expect that this Board of Trustees or this Superintendent will do anything with the funds that they currently promise to do? After all, they claimed through their lawyer in the most recent hearing that “promises are promises. If a school board decides that it is no longer economically, financially the way we should go … those promises are not legally binding.”

 

For that matter, why should any citizen of South Carolina vote for any tax of any kind if political body can claim that the funds will be used for one purpose, and then use them for something completely different? We certainly hope we prevail on the basis of our suits, but the possibility that the district might legally be allowed to take money and use it for any purpose that they want, is chilling.

 

We continue to fight for our rights as parents and for transparency and honesty from our local officials. We hope for the support of other Andersonians and South Carolinians, and we as parents intend to support anyone who advocates for excellence in education and for honest and transparent government at all levels.