At Monday night's Charleston County School District Board of Trustees meeting, the board agreed to let Superintendent Nancy McGinley negotiate three-year contracts with two principals, Maurice Cannon at Burke High School and Robert Grimm at North Charleston High School. Both schools fall under the At-Risk category according to No Child Left Behind standards, and they both faced a takeover by the state Department of Education two weeks ago.
McGinley and the two principals pleaded their case with the state Board of Education on July 11, and the state decided to allow the schools to continue under their current leadership. "We were happy to hear that the state recognized that these schools are making some progress and more progress is possible under stable leadership," McGinley said Monday night. At NCHS, Grimm became the school's eighth principal in 11 years when he took the position in August 2011. Students and teachers credit Grimm for restoring law and order in the hallways, and Grimm touts a reduced suspension rate among his students.
Elizabeth Moffly, the only board member who voted against the principals' approval, wanted the board to wait until the schools' standardized test scores came in before offering the principals three-year contracts. The school board will still have to vote on whether to approve any contract that McGinley offers to the principals.
Moffly also took up a stance against part of a proposed playground renovation at Chicora Elementary School that would include a digital sign to display announcements for parents. The North Charleston school is currently in a temporary location on Spruill Avenue, and the district plans to build a brick enclosure for an electronic sign that can later be moved to the school's permanent home. No estimate was given at the meeting for the cost of the sign, but Moffly said the last time she saw a similar sign installed, the cost was about $10,000.
"I'm just not a fan of digital signs," Moffly said. Later, she added, "Honestly, I don't understand why we need digital signs on our schools. Mt. Pleasant doesn't even allow them."
William H. Lewis, the district's chief operating officer for capital programs, disagreed. "The city has spent tens of millions on improving that area, renewing the neighborhood in that area, and I think [the school] is going to be there for a few years," Lewis said. "If you went out to a more popular neighborhood, we wouldn't get away with putting up 4x4 posts for three years."
Moffly's motion to block the digital sign failed by a 4-3 vote. (Council members Elisabeth Ann Oplinger and Toya Hampton-Green were absent from the meeting.)
After half an hour of what seemed like intractable debate, the board also decided to ask three different accounting firms to make presentations outlining the district's options for a future performance audit.
Moffly led the charge for an audit, and while other board members agreed that an audit would be helpful, some disagreed with her proposal to have three separate companies take a stab at explaining the ins and outs without first seeking some guidance on what the district actually wanted to find out from an audit. Council member Craig Ascue recommended that the board wait until after the next Finance Committee meeting on Aug. 16, when they could get advice from Internal Audit Director Cathleen Cox on how to proceed. His recommendation did not make it into the board's final decision.
The last time the school system underwent a performance audit — a full-on, district-wide investigation to root out inefficiencies and duplicated spending — was in 2000. However, the district has hired the accounting firm Greene, Finney, and Horton to do more specific audits from year to year, and during the meeting, board member Cindy Bohn Coats plopped down a five-inch-thick stack of audits from the past two years, covering topics from federal funding to Head Start programs to financial statements.
Coats said she would have a hard time justifying the expenditure of time and taxpayer dollars for a new performance audit "when, for two years, nobody on this board has read these audits and come back and said, 'This is where we need to save money. This is where we need to make changes.' There are at least five suggestions in every single one of these audits for how we can spend money better."
The board ultimately passed the resolution to bring in the three auditing firms by a 7-0 vote, with a provision that the district would not spend any money on the initial meetings. Michael Bobby, the district's chief financial officer, said after the meeting that he could not readily find what the state had contributed to the cost of the 2000 performance audit, but the district paid about $200,000, and he added that an audit today would likely cost more. He said the district had fared well on the recent series of more specific audits.
The three accounting firms being asked to make presentations are Greene Finney Horton, Dixon Hughes Goodman, and Elliott Davis. Moffly suggested the firms, saying she had gotten the recommendations form a member of the state Budget and Control Board.
Ascue said he would have preferred to hear from just one of the firms, but he made a compromise. "Three companies are going to tell us the same thing," he said after the meeting. "Sometimes, you know, you've got to take one for the team. If that's what Mrs. Moffly wants and that's going to get us there, then I'll spend the time. I'll listen to all three of them."
We'll leave you with some good news: According to a presentation from the Office of Student Placement, 46 students were expelled from district schools in the 2011-2012 school year. That figure has dropped steadily since 2008-2009, when it peaked at 155. The Rev. Chris Collins, a member of the district's Board of Trustees, could hardly contain his excitement and started a round of applause when he heard the news at Monday night's school board meeting. "My hat's off to you," Collins said to Lisa Herring, the district's associate superintendent for academic and instructional support.
Herring said the district owed some of its success to its credit-recovery programs, Twilight and Summit, and to a system of behavioral and academic intervention that treats expulsion as a last resort. Herring reported that in the past school year, 35 students were placed in Twilight, an in-school program that requires high school students to get teacher- and computer-based instruction either before or after school. Summit, a more stringent credit-recovery program, had 59 students in the past school year. In the Summit program, students are removed from their schools but continue instruction at a district facility on Headquarters Road in North Charleston, near the county jail. Students in Summit are not allowed back into their schools until they complete the program.