The Buist Academy admissions scandal continues to get lots of play in the blogosphere, but School Board Chair Nancy Cook says the debate over the admissions policy is closed, and a Buist Task Force formed in January to look at the issue has already been disbanded. The news comes just as Buist parents are entering the fray with their own recommendations on how the admissions process can be improved.

One of the top-rated schools in the district and certainly the most coveted, Buist comes with an arduous admissions process that includes a lottery to narrow the list of prospective students followed by testing and evaluations to determine whether the child is ready to take on the heavy workload.

The Buist lottery assigns each applicant a number. Then, a computer randomly selects the top 24 in each of four categories: downtown students, countywide students, siblings of current Buist students, and students zoned for low-performing schools. The applicants are separated into the categories based on the information provided on their application, before any address verification is done. The applicants are vying for 10 seats in each category — for a total of 40 slots.

With only 31 of the 227 kindergarten applicants on the downtown list, and 10 assured slots, it’s easy to see why parents would do anything to get their kids on that list, even if it means using a grandparent’s or a business address. After the District 20 Constituent Board, on behalf of angry wait-listed downtown parents, challenged some addresses on the incoming list of kindergarteners last year, the school district created a $200 penalty for abusers who falsify a downtown address. While district officials are promising enforcement on address verification, School Board Chair Cook doubts the district will actually collect any fines.

In November, the peninsula’s District 20 Constituent Board, responsible for student transfers, discipline hearings, and bus routes, offered up recommendations for Buist admissions that would, not surprisingly, benefit their constituents by giving priority to peninsular students. The move would turn the school from a countywide magnet program into a near-exclusive downtown school with the constituent board responsible for overseeing the admissions. The board also called for more detailed address verifications and doing away with the computer lottery currently used.

Cook formed the Buist Task Force to vet the constituent board’s demands, having already taken on efforts for improved address checks and a more transparent lottery. The task force had several meetings and was supposed to meet again on Tuesday, March 20, but that meeting was cancelled. A few days later Cook said the task force was finished.

“In the end, we looked at the issues they (the constituent board) had and decided not to do anything different,” Cook says.

District spokesman Jerry Adams says he thinks the task force will meet one more time “to do a wrap-up,” possibly including a public comment period.

Pamela Kusmider, a constituent board member and its representative on the task force, was surprised when told Friday that Cook had disbanded the group. Though the constituent board felt it should be responsible for reforms at Buist, Kusmider represented the board as a good-faith gesture to present their case. She was also hopeful the task force would address concerns about the testing students face.

“That’s what I was so interested in, because our (constituent) board hasn’t touched that,” Kusmider says.

Cook says that the questions about how students are tested have been raised before and vetted by the county board and they won’t be revisiting those complaints. As for suggestions that there is preferential treatment in testing, Cook is standing by the district, saying that accusations need to be backed up with proof before the board will address them.

Families for Buist

But the struggle doesn’t end there. At a recent meeting led by a few task force members, some Buist parents got their first whiff of what the constituent board was asking for. The news prompted school parents who had largely been on the sidelines to challenge what they see as an attack on their countywide school.

A group of Buist parents and supporters met last week to plot out how to combat the suggested changes, says Mark Brandenburg, a local lawyer and Buist parent. The group calls itself Charleston County Families for Buist, a play off the District 20 Families group that has fought since last year for changes to Buist admissions.

“We need to make sure the Charleston County School District understands there are other voices from all over the county that have an interest in the Buist admissions policy,” Brandenburg says.

Families for Buist is looking for ways the district can address the problems raised by peninsula parents and the Constituent Board while preserving their rights to Buist, too.

Brandenburg says the parents support the district’s efforts for improved address verifications and a more transparent lottery. The group also wants information on the testing process to be better communicated to all applicants to address claims that some parents get the inside skinny on what to expect. There should also be a program to encourage early childhood development on the peninsula and countywide that would better prepare children for the tests. Their most important push is to preserve the current Buist admissions policy, which they consider successful.

“The ultimate answer is to improve all the schools,” Brandenburg says.

In the Courts We Trust

Until that happens, the sparring over Buist will continue in court. The district has taken care of the legitimate gripes by the constituent board and that’s all they’re willing to touch, Cook says.

“If they’re still unhappy, their only recourse is to sue us,” she says. “And that would be a waste of time.”

Kusmider’s reaction to the news that the district wouldn’t take up testing concerns paralleled Cook’s.

“It’s very clear the Charleston County School Board isn’t going to change anything unless it’s through the courts,” she says.

And she would know, the constituent board recently updated a suit filed against the district late last year calling on the county to give the constituent board the same responsibility at Buist that the board has for transfers to other downtown schools. The county has consistently stated that Buist is a countywide magnet school and, therefore, out of the hands of the local constituent board.

“We don’t think there is such a thing as a countywide magnet school,” Kusmider says.

Cook may be pointing to the courts for any further disputes, but she thinks the district won’t pursue those $200 penalties for parents who lie about their addresses. Though it would ultimately be the full board’s decision, Cook says that improved residency verification will solve the address problem and that the fine likely would be too much trouble to collect.

“It costs more than $200 to go to court to get the money,” she says. “The purpose is to keep the fraudulent kids out and that’s getting done without a court case.”

The fear of getting caught alone may be keeping some parents from trying their hands at forging addresses. While the total number of applicants changes from year to year depending on need, the percentage of the applicant pool included in the downtown list fell from nearly 20 percent last year to 14 percent this year.

Though Cook is ready to close the book on the Buist admissions debate, the continued resolve from Kusmider and the constituent board and the new interest from Buist parents likely will bring the school back to the forefront before the last bell rings this spring.