District Stonewalls on Requests for Public Information

February 11, 2014

Inside Insight

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request for public infoEditor’s note: Although The Nerve takes no position on the dispute over Southwood Academy of the Arts detailed in the following story, our reporters have frequently detailedattempts by state and local government officials to ignore both the spirit and letter of the Freedom of Information Act. Dr. Homer-Drummond’s story is the latest case of government stonewalling on FOIA requests.

When ordinary citizens want to know what their government is up to, government officials have an obligation – by law – to answer their questions. So – what do you do when those government officials deliberately thwart taxpayers’ attempt to find out what they‘re doing with public money? That’s the question parents and teachers are asking at one school district in the South Carolina Upstate.

In 2006 the Board of Trustees decided to close Southwood Middle School in Anderson District 5, and unanimously voted to put a bond referendum to the public to convert Southwood into a new magnet academy. This academy would combine grades six through twelve, and focus on integrating the arts and creativity into all core classes and learning. The bond referendum was put to a public vote in 2007 and overwhelmingly approved. The bond was issued with the 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).

The intent was to add a new grade each year beginning in 2011. The architectural plans for the school and the Board of Trustees’ Strategic Plan, dated through 2017, affirm that the school would be able to accommodate a new class of up to 120 students each year, and that the budget would support the hiring of new core teachers for each subsequent year. Southwood Academy of the Arts opened with an initial sixth grade class in August 2011, and was reaccredited last year based on the plan to continue adding one new grade each year through the twelfth grade.

Part of the appeal of Southwood is its location. It is the last district school to remain within the city boundaries, and has the largest minority population (40 percent). Southwood provides children from across the district an opportunity to learn in a smaller, more nurturing environment, using a unique educational model. And that model is working. PASS scores in all subjects are higher in all three currently existing grades at Southwood than throughout the district (or indeed most of the county). The rate of acceptance to the Duke TIP program is higher. Southwood’s reputation is such that parents and grandparents have moved into District 5 just for the opportunity to have their students attend Southwood. My own daughter entered Southwood Academy of the Arts with that initial class, and her experience has been transformative.

In June 2013, several members of the Board of Trustees moved rapidly to ensure that the candidate for Suprintendent of their choice, Mr. Thomas Wilson, who worked in Georgia, was brought in. On September 30th, the Board of Trustees held a Special Called Board Meeting. Following an Executive Session, the Board voted to cease the conversion of Southwood to a fully integrated sixth through twelfth magnet academy, stating that they would ‘retain’ it as a middle school.

With this vote, the Board of Trustees discussed an action that was not listed on its agenda, for which no discussion is listed in the minutes, and without notice to the public, particularly interested and concerned parents. We were completely shocked and taken by surprise. Subsequent board meetings only confirmed to us that Mr. Wilson considered the matter closed, and that he had no intention of listening to the parents and students who have planned for and counted on Southwood’s continuance through twelfth grade. Several trustees have made clear public statements that demonstrate a primary interest in denigrating the actions and plans of the prior Superintendent, rather than to act in the best welfare of our children.

While multiple FOIA requests for documents have been stalled – with the district claiming that copying would be $46.50 per hour and $0.25 per page – parents have obtained enough documentation to conclude that the move against Southwood was only the first in a carefully orchestrated plan to move District 5 away from a “District of Choice” based on high academic achievement and unique educational models, into a mega football district that would be competitive with Spartanburg schools for the state championship.

Mr. Wilson has claimed that the district would not be able to fund four new core teachers at Southwood for 2014-2015, but he has easily found more than twice that amount to hire two new football coaches (for Westside and T.L. Hanna High Schools), two assistant football coaches, two new Assistant Principals, two new Athletic Directors (AD), and (we now hear) a district-wide AD. Two weeks ago, one of the district Board of Trustees members, Mr. Dickie Smith (locally known as Coach Smith) resigned from the board in order to pursue an AD position. Mr. Smith was let go as the soccer coach at T.L. Hanna under the prior Superintendent. He would be the second new hire from South Carolina (following Scott Earley as Westside’s new football coach) – the rest are long-standing associates and personal friends of Mr. Wilson’s from his years in the Georgia Department of Education and in Carollton.

Mr. Wilson states that he wants to promote arts, athletics and academics, but only one sport receives the lion’s share of funding and support. We have a school that encourages creativity, exploration and critical thinking in all students. Mr. Wilson and the board have instead moved to create an auditions-based system for Southwood. We have a school that promotes the arts as a complete educational model, bringing together students of different ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. Mr. Wilson and the board want to regulate arts to a pastime, claiming (contradicting the state’s most recent economic data) that arts are not part of a “jobs-readiness” approach.

This past fall, two lawsuits were filed against the district Board of Trustees and Superintendent. The first, by Ms. Cheryl Brannon, alleged improper charges for documents requested under FOIA and an attempt to stonewall requests for public documents. That suit was won last week, but the documents have not yet been produced. I am the plaintiff on the other suit, filed in my name and on behalf of similarly situated parents. The initial hearing, requesting that a judge stay the actions of the district, is scheduled (weather permitting) for February 13.

District officials’ legal strategy to date has been to repeatedly claim they have not received notice of various hearing and deposition dates, that they don’t understand the document requests, and that the suits are meritless. We are poor to middle-class parents, who work hard to support our families and pay our bills. Some of us have advanced education; some finished with a high school degree. We run the political gamut from progressive to libertarian, represent multiple belief systems and denominations, and are of different ethnicities. On the face of things, we have little in common, but we are united in our demand that District 5 must return to honest and transparent governance, and that the public promises made to children are met.

Sharon Homer-Drummond is a biologist and science educator residing in Anderson, SC.