Dist. 20 Constituent School Board chair Marvin Stewart's claim that he isn't out to "get" anyone -- not even the three girls recently suspended from and reinstated at Buist Academy over a salacious "slam book" they shared -- is getting a little shrill.
Last week, the Stewart-led board voted to hire attorney Larry Kobrovsky in order to "gain access" into the process that let the girls return to class without appearing before the constituent board, which oversees discipline and teacher transfers for the downtown school district.
Two years ago, Kobrovsky, a former School Boardmember, sued to force the Charleston County School District (CCSD) to drop Buist's 40 percent "minority" quota of students. Facing an expensive lawsuit and murky legal precedent, the district promptly dropped the policy.
Stewart, who didn't know about the lawyer's past victory over the magnet school, says Kobrovsky was selected because he would do the work "pro bono and the other attorneys we contacted wanted to charge a fee, so there was definitely a financial interest in hiring him."
Stewart says he found similarities between the situation at Buist, where the girls scribbled out notes to each other about schoolyard crushes and how they wanted to kill or "squash" a fellow classmate and a teacher who annoyed them, and a 15-year-old boy who was expelled from Wando High Oct. 7 until January after he was found with a list of "people to destroy" that included teachers and fellow students.
Stewart -- who has been warned by School Board chair Nancy Cook that he may face legal repercussions for his beyond-the-call-of-duty actions, like calling the police to investigate the three girls -- allowed the boy's mother, Colleen Cook, to speak at the Dist. 20 board meeting last week, saying she had a right to be heard, even if her child attended a school in another constituent district.
Taking a quick break from her job as a registered nurse in a downtown emergency room, Cook says she doesn't understand why her child, now 16, is unable to attend another school until 2006, but the Buist girls are back in class. She is incensed that her son's note was only a list of names, while the girls' journal contained details on how they might hurt someone.
"Maybe because they're girls, or maybe because of the age difference," Cook theorizes, referencing the four years her son has on the Buist students.
But for Stewart, the reasons for what he sees as a double standard go deeper than that.
He says the situation is a microcosm of the frustrated constituent board's belief that the School Board is unable and uninterested in maintaining and running the downtown school district. A problem, says Stewart, that has existed since the Act of Incorporation of 1967, which tied together the various county school districts into a single one.
Stewart, who recently came in third for a City Council seat, says the chances his board will sue the CCSD are "about 50/50."
"Well, this has turned into quite a party," says School Boardmember Sandi Engelman, who previously served on the James Island constituent board in the past.
Engelman says she, like Stewart, is very concerned over what she sees as an apparent double standard after the School Board recently upheld the Wando boy's expulsion.
"I think this could cause a tremendous breakdown in trust of the school district," says Engelman, who reminds the public that the School Board never heard the girls' cases, as Buist's principal, Sallie Ballard, reinstated them and gave them the opportunity to make up the schoolwork they missed before the matter ever got to them.
Engelman, who said two weeks ago that she and her husband, the School Board's vice-chair David, would lean toward expelling the girls, says it would be a close vote on the Board, especially since she already knows where fellow Boardmember Hillery Douglas would vote.
"Ever since I've been on this board, every teacher that comes to us, he (Douglas) votes against unless they're black," says Engelman. "I've never seen him vote for one that's white, and that bothers me because we're supposed to represent everyone."
"That's totally false," says Douglas, responding to the apparent charge of racism. "Thankfully, there is only one of her on the Board and everybody knows she flies off the handle."
After serving on the School Board for the past three years with Engelman, Douglas says fellow Boardmembers learn to discount some of what she has to say. "And I'm discounting it."
"My experience with Hillery is that he's thoughtful and you never know where he is going to stand," says School Boardmember Gregg Meyers of Engelman's potentially incendiary comments. "I'm just not as smart as Sandi, because you must be a lot smarter than me to know with absolute certainty how any one of us will vote."
Meyers, a former federal Department of Justice lawyer brought to town to challenge the county's still-segregated school district, isn't sure about Kobrovsky's motives.
"Larry's made a living out of serving on the School Board and finding things to make money off the district once he was off the board," says Meyers with equal disdain. "More power to him; I wouldn't do that in a million years, but he seems not to have those qualms."
"Show me the money," responds Kobrovsky, who claims to have spent more on fighting the racial quota case than he took in. "You can look at me taking this case as a continuation of the pro bono work I did when I served on the Board to remove the quotas."
Kobrovsky confirms that he has taken this latest Dist. 20 case pro bono, adding that he did it after seeing how passionate the constituent boardmembers are about securing good education for the children in their own district.
Regardless, Meyers says Engelman is missing a "vital" difference between the Buist and the Wando cases.
"I'm not sure how at liberty I am to discuss this, but there was a disturbing pattern, or history of behavior, for the kid at Wando, from what I read," says Meyers, who claims that the girls at Buist didn't have the discipline problems Cook's child did.
Cook denies Meyers' assertion, saying the only problems her child had at Wando before his "hit list" was falling asleep in class and being "suspended for one day for throwing paper at another boy, for which the boy punched him out."
Cook claims that, like the Buist girls, who were reinstated after a pediatric psychiatrist found their journal to be benign, a licensed psychologist evaluated her son and found him not to be a danger to himself or others.
All Cook wants is for her boy to be allowed to return to school, make up his work, and get on with being a 16-year-old. And maybe the $750 she spent getting him checked out.