State again to take over failing Allendale school district
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s education superintendent is again taking over the state’s worst-performing school district, 18 years after the last emergency declaration there failed to turn the schools around.
State Superintendent Molly Spearman announced Monday she’s wresting control of Allendale County’s four schools from the locally elected school board. The move comes a decade after the local board regained full authority.
“Management decisions that put self-interests ahead of our students’ achievement are unacceptable, and I will not stand by while students get left behind because of decisions the adults are making,” she said.
She declined to give specifics, other than to say whenever a new principal or superintendent attempted to make changes, Allendale County’s board intervened, and that nepotism can be a problem in the county of fewer than 10,000 people. Officials should make decisions based on “what’s best for students, not their relatives,” Spearman said.
The board could have avoided a takeover by signing the state’s proposed improvement plan but refused to do so, she said.
Since 1998, state law has allowed South Carolina’s superintendent to take over persistently failing schools or districts.
Allendale County is the only district where that’s occurred — largely because officials didn’t want a repeat of then-Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum’s ordeal. Before leaving office in 2007, Tenenbaum told The Associated Press that Allendale County’s “belligerent” school board made the already difficult job in one of the state’s poorest counties even tougher as members continually stirred up the community against state intervention.
The biggest difference this time, Spearman said, is parental backing.
She held a community forum earlier this month after the board un-invited her to its meeting, where she’d planned to present student scores and district finances.
“The parents were asking us and begging us to come in and give support,” Spearman said. “I just feel in my heart and know with us working together with the parents, we can soon turn Allendale into one of the fastest improving school districts in South Carolina.”
Board member Catherine Russell told The AP she’s optimistic.
“I have no problem with the state coming in and assisting our students. That’s what I’m about — making sure our students get what they need,” said Russell, who’s been on the board two years and said she couldn’t address longstanding issues. “I’m new with all the data.”
The district’s other board members did not immediately return messages from the AP.
While test scores improved after the 1999 takeover, they continued to rate in the bottom tier on state report cards. Tenenbaum said the state did succeed in making Allendale — where teachers had wondered if they’d get paid — financially stable, cleaning up the rundown schools, instilling order, filling vacancies and training teachers.
Unfortunately, Spearman said, gains made during Tenenbaum’s takeover have been lost in the decade since.
Allendale County’s students posted the state’s worst scores on standardized tests last year.
More than 80 percent of students in grades three through eight did not meet expectations in math and reading. And not a single 11th grader received an overall ACT score deemed “college ready.”
The problem isn’t money, Spearman said.
Allendale County has gotten extra money from the state for years because of its low performance.
The district received nearly $17,200 for each of its roughly 1,200 students last school year in combined state, local and federal money, ranking its per-pupil funding the sixth-highest statewide, according to data posted by the state’s fiscal affairs office.
Audits are underway, Spearman said.
“I have significant concerns about district finances not being used efficiently and effectively,” she said.
She appointed award-winning educator Walter Tobin, a native of nearby Blackville, to lead Allendale County schools. Since retiring in 1999 as superintendent of Orangeburg 5 schools, Tobin has served as interim superintendent in struggling districts across South Carolina, including a stint in Allendale County in 2013.