School starts in three weeks, after one hot summer of rumor and innuendo surrounding the most coveted public school in the entire Charleston County School District — Buist Academy — and its incoming kindergarten class. The biggest controversy involves addresses: who's got the right one and who used the wrong one to increase their kids' chances of getting in.
Rumors of parents lying to get one of the 40 kindergarten spots have dotted cocktail party conversations for years, but specific accusations that parents used addresses of businesses or rentals to get their kids into Buist popped up this spring. Those accusations have evolved into investigations scrutinizing all 40 incoming kindergarteners, challenging the legitimacy of the admissions process both for this fall and throughout the school's 21-year history.
The address controversy unfolds against the backdrop of a much larger issue, one that pits the Charleston County School District against the District 20 Constituent Board. Like the other seven constituent boards in the county, the downtown Constituent Board is a group of elected officials created out of the 1967 Act of Consolidation, which combined the eight districts that were running Charleston County's schools into one, but established the eight constituent boards to oversee personnel decisions and monitor logistics involving students in their respective districts.
This summer's hot topic — who gets to set the policy governing Buist — reflects deeply-etched disputes over jurisdiction and authority, the latest of which erupted when the District 20 Constituent Board attempted earlier this year to change the magnet school's admissions policy, giving priority to District 20 kids (see below for a detailed explanation of Buist's admissions process). Buist principal Sallie Ballard appealed the Constituent Board's right to do so in March, and that power play has yet to be resolved. But amid the flurry of letter-writing, legal threats, and public disputes, accusations of serious inconsistencies in the admissions policy remain. Many of those seeking resolution are parents, who are far removed from the ongoing power struggle.
Chris Hitopoulos, whose daughter is fourth on Buist's District 20 waiting list and has a spot reserved at the private O'Quinn School, had heard rumors of the forged addresses before, but says the issue must be dealt with now that the Constituent Board has brought it up. "It's been done with a wink and a nod and everyone knew about it," Hitopoulos says. "Something needs to be done about it. The game's over."
But who's even up to bat? With almost every official response focusing on the Constituent Board's power rather than a botched verification process, options for the Constituent Board are dwindling as the first day of school quickly approaches.
An instant replay of the controversy starts with the Constituent Board receiving verbal complaints in May from parents in their district that downtown addresses were faked. The board wrote a letter to Associate Superintendent Earl Choice asking for a verification of the 19 incoming Buist kindergartners who cited downtown as their primary residence.
The board then wrote letters to the 19 families requesting address verification. When only three parents responded, the board started its own investigation, knocking on doors and finding more than one obvious discrepancy between the address given and the people who lived there. Results of this preliminary audit were sent to all parties involved, including Buist principal Sallie Ballard, who has said on record she verifies all addresses personally and requests additional documentation only when "something comes up and I doubt a person is living there." Ballard declined to comment for this article.
On Monday, district spokesman Jerry Adams — who had been on vacation since July 20 — said he is confident that the entire incoming class is legally entitled to be at Buist, per policy, and emphasized that the Constituent Board has absolutely no role in the application or enrollment processes.
"They are not players," he said. "If you believe that the parents are defrauding the system, you need to call them [the parents]."
"They are delaying it because they don't want it resolved before school," says Pam Kusmider, a District 20 Constituent Board member, regarding the administration's response. It was Kusmider who, back in May, brought the residency question up to Alice Paylor, the school district's lawyer. Paylor — who also represents Sallie Ballard in the appeal to limit the Constituent Board's power — told Kusmider to "tell us the names [of the potential address fakers]."
On July 11, the Constituent Board did just that, and at the Constituent Board's meeting last Wednesday, the district had still done nothing to investigate or resolve the discrepancies. At the meeting, Associate Superintendent Choice did say his office will be responsible for address verification, but gave no word on what happens if — or, more likely, when — discrepancies such as those the Constituent Board and the ABC News 4 team brought to light.
For instance, the Constituent Board found that the tenant living at 70-A Church St., which is for sale, did not know the name of the family who used the address as its residence. A sibling of that student is also listed in the Buist directory at an address in Mt. Pleasant, which is also for sale. In its report, the Constituent Board noted, "clearly, applicant does not live at address provided for Buist admission."
Additionally, the board noted two properties with tenants whose owners lived outside District 20. Using public information such as tax records and listed phone numbers, the board also presented "deep suspicion" regarding three siblings who apparently used false District 20 addresses and a handful of discrepancies between addresses in the Buist directory and where families actually reside. As Constituent Board Chairman Marvin Stewart said in a July letter to Choice, "Based on our brief audit, it is not unreasonable to state the entire Buist lottery is severely tainted and has been for years."
The honest-playing parents, on the other hand, acknowledge that the problem not only reflects a poor moral example for children but also the ineffectiveness of the administration as a whole. So it appears the one-sided match is headed straight for another field — the courtroom. Hitopoulos says she would support any legal action brought forth by the Constituent Board to address the issue, and Kusmider says she is encouraging parents to bring a civil action lawsuit against the district for its failure to address the problem.
Sandra Engelman, a member of the Charleston County School Board, agrees: "It's time for everybody to put the cards on the table," she says, pointing out that one of the administration's main talking points has been the need for transparency. "All these folks that are talking the talk, it's time for them to start walking the walk."
Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson says she has seen Sallie Ballard's documentation of address verification but that Choice will review the list. As for potential fakers, Goodloe-Johnson says, "If they don't live in the district [District 20] and they haven't followed proper procedures, they will be asked to go the school where they live.
"I'm not worried. If there is a mistake or an error, it will be corrected."
Why Buist can Boast, and How those Coveted Spots are Filled
• According to the State Department of Education, Buist is the only excellent-rated public school on the peninsula.
• In 2005 Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests (PACT), 93.2 percent of students tested either proficient or advanced in language arts and 94.7 percent in math.
• As of the 2005-2006 school year, Buist offered the peninsula's only foreign language program for early elementary kids.
• Buist's specialized curriculum aims to cultivate critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.
• Buist is working with the Primary Years Program, a division of the International Baccalaureate Organization.
• Student/teacher ratio in core subjects is 21.4 to 1.
• Last year, Buist reported zero out-of-school suspensions or expulsions for violent and/or criminal offenses.
• Ninety percent of Buist teachers are considered "highly qualified" by the state.
Buist Academy, the county's first academic magnet school, opened in 1985 as part of district efforts to encourage desegregation.
Originally, it offered classes from kindergarten through sixth grade, and admissions worked on a 60 percent white/40 percent minority quota, (a figure that reflected overall county demographics then) with minority and nonminority lists for three categories: downtown residents, siblings, and students from the rest of the county.
In response to a lawsuit, the school board voted to drop the use of a racial quota in 2003. The school now runs through eighth grade, and the present admissions system works like this:
• A lottery system separates applicants into four lists, each of which has 10 spots for the incoming class. The lists are based on students who (1) live in District 20, (2) have siblings at Buist already, (3) are zoned in a low-performing school (that counts District 20, too), and (4) live in Charleston County.
• The catch is that some applicants fall under multiple categories and are placed on more than one list, increasing their chances to get in.
• A random computerized lottery assigns numbers to the names on each list.
• Children with the top lottery numbers then take the admissions test. The top 10 names on each list that pass make up the next class.
• Ten additional students are admitted at the fourth-grade level.