Elected school boards could be dissolved under plan to turn around failing districts

Zak Koeske
·12 min read

Local school board members whose districts are underperforming could find themselves out of a job if the South Carolina Department of Education succeeds in its yearslong push to gain greater control over the district takeover process.

Legislation that appears to have broad support in both the House and Senate would authorize the state superintendent, with the state Board of Education’s consent, to dissolve local, elected school boards and assume control of struggling districts indefinitely.

The proposal marks the latest turn in a decades-long debate over how to improve South Carolina’s public schools and who shares in the blame for chronically low-performing schools, which are typically in high poverty areas.

The proposal would sharpen the teeth of an already controversial school improvement strategy in which the state seizes control of a failing school or district with the intent of turning it around.

While the state schools chief already has wide latitude to take over schools or entire districts under South Carolina law — and has not hesitated to exercise that authority in recent years — she cannot fire school boards and lacks a formal process for returning districts to local control.

The new proposal would permit the state superintendent to dissolve democratically elected local school boards in chronically underperforming districts and initiate a multi-year transformation process to ensure the same leaders don’t immediately return to power after the state cedes authority back to local control.

Supporters say the state has an obligation to help students in districts with stubbornly low achievement rates to ensure they’re given the tools to succeed in life.

“Most of the chronically underperforming schools have been chronically underperforming for 20-plus years,” said Rep. Raye Felder, R-York, a sponsor of the House bill. “We’re looking at a way to potentially turn that around and change that, reenergize those schools, bring in a new level of leadership to turn a district around.”

Meanwhile, critics accuse the state of a power grab and of ignoring longstanding inequities between districts that its own school funding formula has exacerbated.

“We’re making a punitive decision against the school districts and the school boards when we have not in this body addressed the inequities that exist for these school districts, particularly rural school districts and Black school districts,” Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Richland, told Felder.

What would the legislation do?

Nearly identical House and Senate bills that would codify the district takeover process have passed easily in their respective chambers, and the Senate’s version is expected to receive a hearing in the House Education committee as soon as next week.

Both bills, which contain language from an omnibus education bill that stalled last year and was split into pieces to make for easier passage this session, would allow the state superintendent to declare a state-of-education emergency and take over schools or districts deemed to be “chronically underperforming,” as well as those that lose accreditation, fail to submit suitable turnaround plans after being identified as underperforming or are embroiled in financial crises.

Underperformance, as defined by the House bill, occurs when fewer than 25% of elementary and middle school students meet expectations on standardized English language arts and math tests or when fewer than 25% of high school students earn a “D” or better on end-of-course English and math exams or fail to achieve at least a “bronze” level on the career readiness assessment.

The Senate bill defines underperformance as any school that receives an overall rating of “below average” or “unsatisfactory” on its annual school report card, and any district where 65% or more of the schools are considered underperforming.

“Chronic underperformance,” which is grounds for state takeover, is underperformance for three straight years and, in the House’s case, five of the last seven years.

Under the new proposal, when the state schools chief seeks to take over a district due to chronic underperformance or fiscal mismanagement — as she’s done in Allendale, Florence 4 and Williamsburg over the past four years — the state Board of Education must sign off on it.

If it does, the local superintendent or board would have 10 days to appeal the decision before the S.C. Department of Education assumes control of the school or district.

Once in control of a district, the state may remain there indefinitely, but is required to seek and receive reauthorization from the state Board of Education every three years, according to the legislation.

The state superintendent would only begin the process of returning the district to local control after annual targets are met for three straight years.

To ensure that local board members who presided over the district’s previous struggles don’t simply return after the state leaves, the legislation mandates that an appointed five-member board serve for at least another three years.

The transitional board would be composed of local residents handpicked by the state superintendent, the local legislative delegation and the governor, and would remain in place until the state Board of Education determined it was appropriate to return full control to local officials.

In a best-case scenario, local officials would regain control after six years.

Support outweighs opposition

The legislation appears to have overwhelming support in both the House and Senate, including among lawmakers who represent areas where the state superintendent has taken over school districts.

All but one member of the Allendale, Williamsburg and Florence delegations voted in favor of the bills. Only Rep. Robert Q. Williams, D-Florence, abstained from voting on the House version, which passed 91-18. The Senate’s bill passed 42-1.

Proponents of the legislation say it’s necessary to guarantee students in all South Carolina schools receive a quality education and to ensure academic and financial progress is sustained after the state cedes control to local officials in turnaround districts.

“It’s our responsibility to speak up for the 780,000 kids that are in our schools,” Education spokesman Ryan Brown said. ‘We have an obligation to do that.”

The state Department of Education has made progress in each of the three local districts it currently controls, but is hesitant to relinquish control to the local board members whose mismanagement prompted the state’s takeover, he said.

Education officials are wary of repeating what happened in Allendale, the only district that’s been taken over on two separate occasions — first in 1999 by former State Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum, and again in 2017 by current schools chief Molly Spearman.

“(Tenenbaum) spent all this time and money and resources and got them in pretty good shape, and it was turned back over to the same board,” Brown said. “Some of that stuff stayed, but most of it they undid and undid it pretty quickly.”

Critics of the legislation argue that unequal funding, not inept school boards, are primarily to blame for districts’ struggles and say removing duly elected officeholders because of low student test scores is inappropriate and may even violate the Voting Rights Act.

Brawley, who voted against the House bill, said it unfairly penalizes school boards in Black and rural communities where, through no fault of their own, student test scores suffer due to longstanding funding inequities.

“It’s like being in a race with your hands tied and one of your legs broken,” she said. “You’re still required to get to the finish line at the same time as someone who has not, but you’ve not been given the tools to compete.”

South Carolina School Boards Association president Cheryl Burgess, whose organization opposes the bills, said the legislation would disproportionately impact minority communities and thus likely violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

“Dissolving democratically elected school boards is not the solution to addressing the myriad of socioeconomic challenges that are present in many communities in our state,” said Burgess, who serves on the Lexington 3 school board. “The dissolving, however, does create animosity, division and a stigma that stays in that community for many years after the state leaves.”

An analysis by the state school boards association found that five of the six school districts in South Carolina that meet the Senate bill’s criteria for state takeover due to chronic underperformance have higher percentages of both nonwhite voters and Black school board members than the state average.

If the six districts identified — Allendale, Colleton, Florence 4, Hampton 2, Lexington 4 and Marion — had their school boards dissolved, nonwhite voters would be negatively impacted at 2.35 times the rate of white voters, according to the analysis.

Burgess also argued that because no other elected bodies can be dissolved for underperformance of the entity they govern, the bills impose a higher standard for school board members than for any other elected officials at the state or local level.

State education officials deny that the dissolution of elected school boards violates any constitutional provisions, and Brown posited that allowing a board to grossly mismanage a district actually denies children their constitutional right to a free public education.

He said it was appropriate to hold school board members to a higher standard because of the critical role education plays in improving people’s lives and the outsize amount the state spends on education.

Local district takeover is ‘last resort’

While the state superintendent would rather work with struggling districts than take them over, an intervention sometimes becomes necessary when local boards won’t accept assistance, Brown said.

“Ultimately, that is the very last resort,” he said of a state takeover. “It’s not a decision that’s taken lightly, and it is the last thing that we want to do. But if it’s necessary and it’s going to lead to better outcomes for the children that are there then we’ll do it.”

The state periodically identifies low-performing schools and provides them tailored support based on the level and type of assistance they need to improve.

In 2019, the most recent year the S.C. Department of Education released a school report card, 235 schools that rated “below average” and “unsatisfactory” — the lowest rating possible — qualified for assistance.

A below average rating means a school is in jeopardy of not meeting the state’s standards for progress toward its vision that all students graduate with the skills necessary to be competitive in the labor market and become a productive member of society. An unsatisfactory or at-risk rating means the school’s performance failed to meet the state’s standards for progress toward its vision.

Brown said school boards in most struggling districts are eager for the additional state resources and guidance they’re afforded after receiving an “underperforming” designation. It’s only when boards dismiss the state’s attempts to improve student performance that takeover becomes an option.

“When you’re weighing (a takeover) you have to just decide, are they willing to work with us and make the progress or not?” he said. “If it’s the latter, you lose generations of students the longer you wait. It’s a tough call, but the state has a lot of skin in the game and we gotta see that every child is served.”

As the district takeover process currently works, local boards continue to exist in name, and may even meet occasionally, but lack any decision making authority.

They often try to interfere with the state’s attempts — Allendale County schools sued the state in 2017 to block its takeover — but Brown said that’s not why the state wants the boards dissolved.

“You want people in the community to have a clear understanding of who’s in charge and who they need to look to for support and to address their concerns,” he explained. “If I’m in Allendale, I should be addressing my concerns to the district superintendent and our agency and not a local board member who has no authority to do anything. It’s really to make the system more accountable.”

Some House lawmakers who oppose the bill said it’s unfair that local board members could get axed if their schools don’t perform, but the state superintendent would suffer no consequences if her interventions also failed.

“Why does a state superintendent get a pass on failure and not the local board?” asked Rep. John King, D-York, who proposed an amendment to remove the state superintendent if her turnaround efforts failed.

“If the state superintendent has it for three years and it continues to fail,” said King, whose amendment was tabled, “why isn’t that person taken out of office just like we’re doing the local school districts?”

Brown said he supported accountability for the state schools chief, but couldn’t envision a scenario in which the state’s turnaround efforts would not succeed.

“Failure would be inexcusable,” he said. “I don’t know how you would fail when you have people who know what needs to be done and have the tools and resources to do it.”

Rep. Cezar McKnight, a Williamsburg Democrat and the self-proclaimed product of a chronically failing school district, said he supports the state removing school boards that aren’t doing a good job.

McKnight said Williamsburg County schools were headed for bankruptcy in 2018 when the state superintendent intervened and he fears his county’s schools could become “Allendale 2.0” if the same board members who ran the district’s finances into the ground return.

“We’ve got to stop carrying water for people who aren’t doing what they are supposed to do,” he said. “And I don’t care whose school district it is. It could be Cherokee, it could be Clarendon. If they’re not cutting the mustard, they have to go, and they have to go with all urgency or we put yet another class of children out into the world and fail them.”