Athletics request calls attention to magnet schools' mission

Magnet schools' mission at issue

It's a debate of academics versus athletics, and for now academics seem to have the upper hand.


At issue are sports at Richmond County's magnet schools, specifically whether a "major" sport such as basketball should be allowed.

The topic spurred a lengthy and somewhat contentious debate recently among Richmond County school board members after the parent of an A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet School student requested basketball be added there.

Board member Jimmy Atkins argued in its favor, noting that other sports such as volleyball, track and tennis are already there. After a long discussion, which included several board members saying they feared adding such sports as basketball or football could harm A.R. Johnson's academic intent and create a "powerhouse" situation, Atkins said he could see he was in the minority.

"You're being closed-minded about it," he said to fellow board members, noting how exceptions have been made at other schools, referring to the board's allowing Laney's athletic program to stay at a lower classification than some other schools even though it creates more travel costs.

At the heart of the discussion, some say, is a desegregation order that led to the creation of the magnet schools to provide higher learning opportunities for students countywide. Although certain sports have been allowed at the magnets, some say there's always been an understanding that academics are to take more importance there.

"The idea was we really do put more resources in those schools per student," school board attorney Pete Fletcher said at a recent committee meeting. "The idea was they get all that, they have to give up something."

Fletcher said that before basketball could be added at A.R. Johnson, he might need to go before court officials to see if it would have an effect on the school system complying with its desegregation order.

"That order still affects what we do," he said.

The board then approved a motion by board member Patsy Scott to have the school system's athletic director, George Bailey, and Fletcher research the issue and return with recommendations.

Already, many board members have signalled where they stand on the idea.

Board members Barbara Pulliam and Venus Cain said they're subscribing to the "if it's not broke, don't fix it" philosophy.

Cain also said that when a parent applies to have their student entered into a magnet, "You're saying academics is more important to you than sports anyway."

"The other issue is if we decide to do basketball for Johnson, then we're going to have to do basketball for Davidson," board President Marion Barnes said.

The parent whose request started the discussion, Kim Trotty, has said basketball at A.R. Johnson would help students achieve athletic scholarships, and might increase enrollment.

Some board members have said having "major" sports at magnets, though, could create a "powerhouse" because these schools could recruit countywide.

Board member Alex Howard said there's also the cost consideration of adding sports such as football, which requires more funding.

"To compare tennis and football is not a fair assessment of a sport," he said, adding that he doesn't think it's the right time to add basketball at A.R. Johnson.

Atkins said the board shouldn't pick and choose which sports are to be offered.

"We owe it to the children of these schools," he said. "We should not limit it."

Back story on the desegregation order

The Richmond County School System has operated under a federal desegregation order since 1964 following a lawsuit for equitable education that was filed by a private individual. Officials have said several steps, including infrastructure improvements, have been taken to address the order, but the current school board has agreed more work is needed, with some saying certain schools are still referred to as white or black schools.

In December, board members were told a settlement might be reached in the next year. In March, Augusta attorney Ben Allen, who represents the original plaintiff, said he planned to visit schools this year to address lingering concerns and also would research to see how other areas have settled desegregation orders. He also planned to bring in an expert to address Richmond County's situation prior to there being talk of a possible resolution.

Desegregation order

BACKGROUND: Since 1972, Richmond County has operated under a desegregation order resulting from the Acree v. Board of Education lawsuit.

IMPACT OF ORDER: Richmond County has three magnet schools -- A.R. Johnson, Davidson Fine Arts and C.T. Walker -- created to help with integration. They were to provide an equal opportunity for higher learning for students countywide.

WHAT'S THE ISSUE? Some school officials say the addition of new sports programs at the magnet schools might not comply with the original intent of the desegregation order and might create a powerhouse for athletics.



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