Inconsistency Evident in Aiken Bond Referendum

April 30, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveBy Jane Page Thompson
Citizen Reporter

The Aiken County School Board has announced a $236 million bond referendum for the construction of new schools. The referendum will be voted on during a special election May 25 that will cost taxpayers more than $40,000.

The school board and the administration determined which schools would benefit should the bond pass by conducting reviews of each school and used overcrowding tables to determine district needs.

As a result, it was determined that six new schools were needed and would be funded if referendum proponents were successful.

However, a review of the S.C. Department of Education 2009 school report cards, required by the State Education Accountability Act, shows that 90 percent of the teachers in those six schools replied to state accountability surveys by saying the they were “satisfied with the physical environment” of their schools.

In fact, at two of these schools 100 percent of the teachers said they were 100 percent satisfied with their school environment, according to the surveys.

Yet, the school board, administration, advisory councils, and many students and parents are now saying these schools need to be replaced because the conditions are so deplorable.

“Aiken County is standing at an important crossroads,” Diane Mangiante, executive director of Public Education Partners, said in a press release printed in The Aiken Standard. “Our children and their teachers deserve safe, well-equipped classrooms. Many of them are teaching and learning in portables, on stages, even in closets and hallways ….”

There is no argument that some of these schools have been in horrific shape for years, even decades, and that the use of portables has created long-term classroom difficulties with units not designed for such use.

Since 2001 the S.C. Education Oversight Committee has been conducting surveys about the condition of the physical environment and assessing teacher satisfaction. Aiken County’s schools have generally not fared badly in such surveys, with teachers even occasionally reporting 100 percent satisfaction.

Should the bond pass, the following schools would be rebuilt: Aiken High, North Augusta High, Ridge Spring-Monetta High, Leavelle McCampbell Middle School, Jackson Middle School/New Ellenton Middle School (the two would be combined) and Aiken County Career and Technology Center.

Here is how the teachers at those schools voted on their 2009 surveys about their satisfaction with their physical environment at school:

  • Aiken High: 100 percent of the teachers responded to the survey and reported an 85.8 percent satisfaction rate with facilities;
  • North Augusta High: 100 percent response, 86.8 percent satisfaction;
  • Ridge Spring-Monetta High: 95.6 percent response, 86.4 percent satisfaction;
  • Leavelle McCampbell Middle: 55 percent response, 68 percent satisfaction;
  • Jackson Middle: 100 percent response, 82.6 percent satisfaction;
  • New Ellenton Middle: 100 percent response, 100 percent satisfaction; and
  • Aiken County Career and Technology Center 100 percent response, 100 percent satisfaction.

If these surveys are supposed to be answered honestly by the faculty and the schools are in “below average” condition, why did the teachers not report this to the state education department?

If these report cards are to keep school boards, school administration and state councils accountable, why is there such a disparity in the condition reports?

Could it be that teachers are afraid to give bad marks to their schools? Does this lack of honest and true accountability indicate that our schools will “teach to the test” just to keep their jobs?

When asked: “Do teachers feel the need to give schools high ratings on their physical and social environments in order to keep their jobs?” Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, replied, “Some teachers do – I wish everyone would be honest.”

Consider: More than 114 people serve in the State Board Accountability Division, 55 people from all over the state serve on various state level education councils, committees and boards; and there are 85 school districts and eight statewide education associations.

In addition, there are 35 advisory council members in Aiken County, along with nine elected school board members and thousands of students, parents and teachers. So why has this disparity in accountability measures gone unchecked?

State Law (Title 59, Chapter 144, Article 120) requires our educators to “ensure accuracy of District reporting” and holds them responsible for “removing the barriers which inhibit progress.”

It seems that the teachers have become their own barrier by not reporting the condition of their schools accurately over the last nine years that the data has been collected by the state education department.

Aiken County needs new schools. However, if the taxpayers are going to foot the $236 million bill, the teachers and administrators must be honest, accurate and accountable in their reporting of the conditions of our schools.

Jane Page Thompson is an accredited land consultant and realtor from Aiken. She is active in her community and is involved in local political party grassroots development.