I recently had brief conversations with two District 20 Constituent School Board members about the controversy over admissions to Buist Academy. District 20's constituent board wants students residing in the area to get priority admission. The argument has merits, but it's a temporary solution to a long existing problem.
Buist is perhaps the school district's most prestigious primary magnet school. Board members Pam Kusmider and Marvin Stewart say District 20 parents are getting short-changed because each year, only one-fourth of all kindergarten admissions at the school come exclusively from the district. The other three-fourths of new Buist kindergartners are either students who are zoned to attend failing schools, students from other constituent districts around the county, or students who have siblings already attending the school. Of course, there is overlap between the categories. (There are more than 1,000 applicants on its waiting list for the school; 205 of those are for kindergarten.)
Prior to Buist's establishment in 1985, District 20 schools had been almost totally black. At the time, current School Board Chairman Hillery Douglas was a member of the board that developed the concept for Buist — a high achieving school that would attract white students and help the county avoid forced bussing, a move that would have likely been ordered by the U.S. Justice Department.
From the start, enrollment at Buist was comprised of 60 percent white students and 40 percent black students. However, the black community, which had quietly suffered the decline of neighborhood schools for nearly two decades, wanted greater African-American representation among the student body.
In the late 1990s, former school board member Larry Kobrovsky learned of a Mt. Pleasant couple whose child was allegedly denied admission to Buist because of the racial quota. Kobrovsky told me that a race-based admission policy was the wrong way to solve the problem of segregation. According to Kobrovsky, Buist's student population wasn't truly diverse; nearly all its students — black and white — were the children of middle-class professionals.
Many of the black parents I have talked to said they feel their children have little chance of being accepted at Buist. And a lot of the white parents I talked with have the same perception. For them, getting into Buist has more to do with whether or not a sibling attends the school; they also feel like it is a matter of who you know.
Last year, some District 20 residents said they wanted a bigger slice of the admissions pie. Kusmider and Stewart, along with one parent, filed a lawsuit, claiming that the constituent board has authority to determine attendance policy.
The issue is complicated, but it seems to me that Charleston County has discriminated against other schools in favor of Buist. The state's school report card for the 2006-07 school year revealed disparities in the allocation of resources to Charleston Progressive Academy, the peninsula's predominantly black magnet elementary school.
Even though the schools had nearly similar enrollments (Buist 397 students, Charleston Progressive 315 students), Buist received nearly $400,000 more for its operating budget than Charleston Progressive. There also appear to be disparities in staff allocations such as administrative, teachers, and health care personnel.
Back in the day, then School Board member John Graham Altman opposed establishing Buist Academy. He said all the amenities at Buist should be duplicated in neighborhoods. In my view, Altman had his eye on the bigger picture.