COLUMBIA — Students at Mary L. Dinkins Charter School read books Tuesday and filled out worksheets in the classrooms of a Sumter church.
At the same time, the state’s charter school district was moving forward with steps – on hold for a year by court order – to shut the school down for failure to improve its academic performance, financial reporting problems and alleged violations of state law.
“Their performance had been abysmal,” said Don McLaurin of Charleston, chairman of the state charter school district’s board of trustees. “After lots of letters warning them of their performance, we revoked their charter.”
The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating the school, which has received almost $2 million in state and federal money over the last two years, but details are not available, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said. The U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general also is investigating, state charter school officials said.
The school’s director, Benita Dinkins-Robinson, said the state’s threat to close the predominantly African-American school is typical of the opposition her school has faced since it became a charter school in 2004 under the Lee County School District.
The “plot to close one particular school has been ... a whole conspiracy,” said Dinkins-Robinson, who has been at Mary L. Dinkins since it opened. “The problem we have though (is) that the children are in the middle.”
Dinkins-Robinson told The (Sumter) Item Thursday that she was unaware of any investigations into the school.
In 2007, the Lee School District unsuccessfully tried to revoke the school’s charter. In 2010, the state accepted the school into its charter school district on probationary status.
At the time, the school, which says it has 140 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, made a “pretty good case ... that some of (the school’s academic problems) had to do with the bad relationship between them and the district they’d been chartered under,” McLaurin said.
But a lack of improvement and other concerns about the school’s operations led the state to revoke the school’s charter in March 2012, he said.
That plan ground to a halt when the school appealed the decision and the state Administrative Law Court froze the revocation, ordering the state charter district not to make contact with the school.
This month, the court upheld the charter school district’s decision to close the school – ending a year of little or no contact between the state and the school’s leaders or students.
That delay has prompted charter school leaders and lawmakers to change state law to prevent future delays in closing charter schools.
The state has about 55 charter schools – including 18 in the state’s public charter school district, which opened in 2008 – and interest is growing rapidly, said Wayne Brazell, state charter schools superintendent.
Charter schools are meant to be innovative alternatives to traditional public schools.
Dinkins-Robinson said she started Mary L. Dinkins to help disadvantaged children in Lee County.
But the school has been failing academically, according to the Administrative Law Court’s order upholding the state’s revocation of the school’s charter.
Among the findings, Judge Shirley Robinson of Columbia found that, in six years, the school has only met one of 22 academic objectives used to determine acceptable yearly progress.
In 2011 only one student passed any end-of-course exam, and 54 of 61 students did not take required exams.
Students’ academic performance “decreased dramatically” between 2009-2011, falling behind the state charter district and state schools with similar poverty levels, Robinson wrote.
For example, the percentage of Mary L. Dinkins’ elementary-age students who passed a state standardized test in math dropped to 14.3 percent in 2011 from 46.1 percent in 2009, far below the 60 percent of students passing in the state charter district and in schools statewide with similar poverty levels.
Dinkins-Robinson said it is unfair for the state to hold the school accountable for its performance while a part of the Lee School District. She also attributed some falling test scores to taking on special education students.
But the court rejected both explanations.
Moving without approval
Until attempting to close Mary L. Dinkins, state charter school officials said they did not realize how difficult closing a charter school could be without the school’s cooperation, having closed only one previously, Brazell said.
Some of that difficulty comes from charter schools having more autonomy than traditional public schools. They have their own school boards and control their own finances. State law also allows schools to appeal closing decisions.
When an administrative law court halted the school’s closing last year, the state had to continue sending money to the school for operations. Meanwhile, state charter school district officials were ordered not to make contact with the school, Brazell said.
Mary L. Dinkins moved from Lee County into Sumter County facilities not approved by the state, alarming officials who contacted law enforcement and the state Department of Social Services.
Dinkins-Robinson said she invited state education officials to approve the sites, found in haste after the school was evicted in August from its Lee County building.
State director of school facilities Delisa Clark said that while a state official visited two sites, the school’s move never was approved.
After learning the school had moved into Word International Ministries’ church, state officials visited in February and provided a list of improvements that needed to be made immediately to remain at the site, Clark said, adding her office never heard back.
Strengthening charter law
On Friday, Mary L. Dinkins ceased to be a part of the charter school district, said the district’s spokesman, Clay Eaton. The state made its last payment to the school at the end of February, bringing the total distributed to the school to more than $738,000 for the 2012-2013 school year.
State officials went to the school Friday to repossess school property, including its financial records and instructional materials.
Dinkins-Robinson and the school’s attorney have filed an appeal of the closing.
“We’re going to appeal all the way to Obama if we have to,” she said. “Someone has to stand in the gaps for the kids.”
Lawmakers and charter school leaders say the case of Mary L. Dinkins is not common but highlights the need to strengthen state law so failing charter schools can be closed more quickly.
“Right now, schools could remain in appeal for a number of years and stay open,” said Mary Carmichael, executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina.
State Rep. Phil Owens, R-Pickens, said he is working on a bill that would set more specific standards for charter schools and how they can be closed.
If it becomes law, the bill would bring more accountability to charter schools and provide language for judges, interpreting the law, to understand the state’s intent behind closing a school.
“We don’t expect this kind of thing to happen (often),” said McLaurin, the district chairman. “A charter school is about innovation, so sometimes we take a risk on who we grant a charter to.”
But, he added, “The larger point is, there couldn’t be a more egregious example for why the law should be changed.”
Reach Self at (803)771-8658