Reaction from Fort Mill parents reveals divide in school community

FORT MILL -- When Fort Mill school district officials last month unveiled elementary school student reassignment proposals, they quickly received a barrage of complaints.

Parents voiced anger over longer drive times. Some questioned why their children have to change schools. Others discussed fears that their childrens' education quality could suffer.

Another common theme was a little less predictable.

Comments in public forums, e-mails to school officials and interviews with Fort Mill parents depict a school community divided over perceptions of wealth and status.

"I am a little concerned about the obvious favoritism being given to Springfield Elementary in terms of demographics and income level," one parent wrote to Fort Mill schools Superintendent Keith Callicutt. "To blatantly make Springfield Elementary the most 'elite' school in the area based on demographics and income level reeks of politics in the worst sort of way ... I think you and your board better prepare for a long, hard fight on this situation."

The district is redrawing attendance lines as it prepares to open two new elementary schools in August -- Sugar Creek Elementary off Farm House Road and Pleasant Knoll Elementary off Pleasant Road.

Callicutt said that neither he nor the school board took part in devising the proposals. The district hired Dale Holden, a Columbia contractor, to redraw lines.

The district, Callicutt said, asked Holden to consider these factors: school enrollment, demographics, transportation, transitions from fifth to sixth grade, keeping neighborhoods assigned to one school and whether proposals are fair, reasonable and easy to understand.

"I'm not at all surprised by the amount of input," Callicutt said. "You get a lot more attention with elementary lines. Parents tend to be more involved at that level."

But "some of it has surprised me. I'm surprised that some people would make the comments that they've made publicly."

Callicutt declined to specify which comments.

The commotion started Sept. 29 in the Nation Ford High School auditorium, where Holden revealed three reassignment options.

Holden told the crowd of more than 200 that public input might shape the final choice, which could shift some 1,300 students from their current schools.

The three proposals are largely similar. Several affluent neighborhoods could be reassigned to schools with higher numbers of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch.

• Sugar Creek Elementary is set to pull at least 500 students from Springfield Elementary. Between 25 percent and 27 percent of Sugar Creek's students are expected to receive subsidized meals. That's higher than both Springfield's 14 percent and the district's average 18 percent. The state average is about 50 percent.

• In two scenarios, Riverview Elementary would pick up three neighborhoods -- Sutton Place, Willowbrook and Wimbleton Woods -- that are currently assigned to Orchard Park.

Between 19 percent and 22 percent of Orchard Park students are expected to receive subsidized meals, compared with 31 percent to 36 percent of Riverview students expected to do the same.

When Holden finished, comments flew.

A resident of the Sutton Place neighborhood, who identified himself as a real estate agent, said he feared his home's value would drop if assigned to Riverview.

"It was an eye-opening experience for me," Fort Mill parent Mims Driscoll said in an interview. "The air of that meeting reeked of snobbery. Just the audacity of what some people said. They're so blinded by their fears for their money and their property values, they don't care whether they sound like elitist pigs."

In the weeks since, neighborhoods have organized and become increasingly vocal.

Residents of Regent Park -- most of which is slated for the new Sugar Creek Elementary -- have printed fliers and sent dozens of e-mails to school officials and local media opposing the proposals.

Many said they want Sugar Creek's demographics to more closely resemble the district average. They say they worry that a less affluent student body means fewer parents will get involved and donate fewer dollars.

"I want some type of reassurance that students won't lack in education, that they'll be able to have all the same amenities," Stacey Poole, whose daughter would attend Sugar Creek, said in an interview. "I mean, are those that go to Sugar Creek going to be deemed, 'you go to the poor school?'"

Springfield parent Amy Bocholis agreed: "If people can't afford a lunch for a child, they're not going to be able to contribute to the school for fundraising and field trips."

The furor culminated last week at a school board meeting. Four people from a crowd of more than 100 addressed the board.

"We chose Fort Mill because of its excellent schools," said Annemarie Collins, who spoke for Regent Park residents who would be reassigned from Springfield to Sugar Creek. "We had faith in you, the board, that the options proposed for the two new schools would certainly be similar in demographics ... compared to the school our children would no longer attend."

Beth Wagner spoke next: "I request that the board not presume that Ms. Collins ... represents the views of the entire proposed Sugar Creek attendance area."

Wagner said she and several neighbors believe that factors other than demographics are "far more important in determining the quality of education." She mentioned funding, teacher qualifications and school curriculums.

Both speakers agreed on one thing. They asked for an additional public forum before Callicutt recommends a reassignment plan on Oct. 20.

Callicutt has since said that he doesn't intend to hold another public forum. The school district will continue to take public input until a plan is approved. The school board is expected to vote on the proposals on Nov. 3.

Bocholis said she finds the process frustrating. "Had they not released any demographics in the first place, nobody would know anything," she said. "There wouldn't be a problem."

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