Last Thursday, the Charleston County School District Board voted 5-4 to appoint Gerrita Postlewait as its new superintendent. The contentious vote in favor of Postlewait, a former Horry County superintendent, immediately elicited charges of racism from the board's African-American members and cries from the community who allege the hiring process was not transparent. Given the accusations of secrecy and tokenism throughout the process of finding Nancy McGinley's successor, it does not bode well for a smooth start for the new administration.
The perception that Postlewait was preordained to receive the job is made worse by earlier reports that white board members spoke with her without the knowledge of the board's black members. Certainly, board members have the right to speak to any candidate they wish, but this racial division and the eventual decision to hire Postlewait seems to bolster the claims of a shadowy process.
Many decisions made by the Charleston County School Board often become politicized, polarizing the board and the community along racial lines. The fact that the board narrowly selected Postlewait over a highly qualified internal black candidate, Lisa Herring, only heightens the frustrations of African Americans who believe Herring was a superior candidate. Additionally, Board member Michael Miller noted that McGinley served in the same position under the late Maria Goodloe-Johnson when she was superintendent, chief academic officer. This prior precedent cast considerable doubt on Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats' claim that someone with prior superintendent experience was needed for the top CCSD job.
Whether or not Postlewait is qualified to run the school district — and whether or not she'll be successful — almost becomes immaterial given the controversy surrounding her hiring. One of the pervasive problems within the school district has been the superintendent's inability to reach out to African-American communities served by failing schools. Many of the successful intervention and remediation programs started by McGinley only gained a foothold because of the trust she had built over time with black leaders and the community itself. Since Postlewait does not have the institutional knowledge of either Herring or interim superintendent Mike Bobby, who passed on the superintendent job, she'll be starting at square one. One might even conclude that Postlewait is starting further back due to the suspicion that she was hired over a more deserving internal, minority candidate. It is ironic that these charges of racism by the elected board have occurred during this period of reconciliation, healing, and togetherness within the Charleston community. Whereas the Emanuel Nine brought this community together across racial lines, the school board's actions seem destined to polarize the community once again, and to usher in a return to politics as usual.
If there is one thing that is clear, it's that the unfortunate circumstances behind Nancy McGinley's resignation continue to reverberate. Prior to McGinley, one of Charleston's longest-serving superintendents, there was a revolving door of failed hires and short-term superintendents who fell prey to board politics. Because of the controversial way the school board chose to hire its new superintendent, the district's outreach efforts toward the African-American community will be made all the more difficult. Hopefully, Postlewait has the skills and experience in community-building to overcome what will likely be a rough start.
If Postlewait is not able to resolve these differences and build bridges to the African-American community and the board members who were disaffected by the search and hiring process, we may soon see another quick succession of superintendents, which would only lead to more controversy, finger pointing, disjointed leadership, and a blissful longing for the days of Nancy McGinley.
Dwayne Green is a licensed attorney practicing in Charleston. He is a former assistant attorney for the City of Charleston and graduated from Princeton University with a degree in politics and the University of Iowa College of Law.