An audible groan spread throughout the audience near the end of last week’s forum for Charleston County School Board candidates. It was a shared response to a comment by current board member Michael Miller, who is running for re-election this fall. While the school district has been mired in budget cuts and increased scrutiny following the news of an $18 million budget shortfall, Miller’s words truly drove home the current predicament for several local schools.
“We have some schools that have books on the first day and some schools that don’t have books until six, seven, eight weeks into school. We’re talking about everything from orders being on back-up to whatever excuse you can name,” he told the crowd gathered at the International Longshoremen’s Association Hall.
Miller’s words, although striking, were in keeping with much of what was discussed during the evening’s forum — namely the equity, or lack thereof, among students and schools throughout Charleston County and the fallout from the budget shortfall, which led to about $18.3 million in cuts for the 2016-2017 school year, as the district welcomed an estimated 1,400 new students. Headed into this November’s elections, nine candidates are vying for five spots on the county’s consolidated school board.
The race for the open seat representing the Charleston peninsula is between impassioned activist Tony Lewis and incumbent Todd Garrett. Duking it out for two open spots representing the north area are incumbent Rev. Chris Collins, former chairman of the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission Kevin Hollinshead, past chair of the North Charleston Citizens Advisory Council Russ Patterson, and Louis Smith, executive director of the Community Resource Center. For West Ashley, longtime educator Priscilla Jeffery, former deputy superintendent at Berkeley County School District and past Mt. Pleasant Academy Principal Gary Leonard, as well as incumbent Michael Miller are in the running for two seats on the board. And whether incumbent or newcomer, all those who win a place on the school board will have to answer for the actions of its past members and contend with the lingering repercussions of their decisions.
First on the agenda for last week’s forum hosted by the Quality Education Project, the S.C. Progressive Network, and other local organizations was the question of unequal resources among schools. For Miller, the opportunity of school choice in Charleston County has led to under-funding in certain schools that struggle with enrollment rates, which dictate the allotment of money. Increase enrollment and you can ensure that more funding goes to these under-resourced schools, he suggested. Leonard offered another perspective on the problem.
“When I was deputy superintendent at Berkeley County School District, I received approximately $200,000 to be allocated to our schools. But when you have approximately 41 schools and one school has a population of 219 students and another one was 2,500, there’s an unequal allocation,” Leonard said. “When you divide it by the number of students and the number of dollars, that school with 200-something students can’t buy anything. So I made a decision that no matter what level your school is, if you’re at the bottom you’ll have at least enough dollars to buy something that’s needed to improve your school.”
Lewis pointed to race as the cause of the lack of resources in certain schools. Having recently stepped down as chairman of the Constituent District 20 School Board after a district official claimed he threatened to release information regarding inappropriate sexual conduct within the district if certain individuals were not given jobs, Lewis cited the condition of Stoney Field as a prime example of inequality.
“Let’s call it like it is. It’s race. There ain’t no way you’ve got all those students over there at Burke High School, 30 years or more with the same old stuff and everyone has brand-new stadiums everywhere around them,” he said. “So let’s call it like it is, they are lacking. Certain schools have needs. Well, help the ones who have the most needs and help bring them up to the bar.”
Delving further into the cuts made over the past year, current board member Chris Collins acknowledged that rural schools and those populated by students and employees of lower socioeconomic status tend to go overlooked. Collins said he has already begun asking for a minimum $15 per hour wage for workers throughout the district and would vote to reinstate parent-advocacy and arts programs.
“Even though we had a budget shortfall, there was never any reason to cut the arts program at all. We have money for that,” he said.
All candidates at the forum joined Collins in speaking in favor of bringing back parent-advocacy and the full gamut of arts programs to Charleston schools. As a longtime art teacher, Jeffery recognized that art rooms serve as a place where students can express themselves, as well as provide lessons for students in critical thinking. Another current board member concurred that these programs never should have been removed.
“My position with the superintendent was if we were going to make any cuts to reduce our overexpenditure of $18.1 million, I personally felt that those cuts should have never been made at the school-based level. Those cuts should have been made at the upper administration level,” said Miller. “Why would we tamper with anyone or any position that impacts learning. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense then. It doesn’t make sense now. So I understand the importance of arts, and when given the opportunity if it comes to a vote again, I would vote to reinstate arts programs throughout our district.”
When it came to ways to save money for the district, Lewis pointed to reducing the number of school resource officers (SROs) — a topic that drew a large amount of discussion during the forum. Leonard said the most important step to improving the role of SROs comes during the hiring process, whereas Collins and Miller called for more specialized training so that officers have a better understanding of their role in schools. Jeffery was quick to acknowledge that if students are acting out in the classroom, it is likely due to problems in the their personal lives. She said that students need someone with whom they can discuss these issues, while still being treated with respect. On the topic of SROs, Smith described a worst-case scenario of what happens when officers step outside of their prescribed role in the classroom and the impact that can have on a student’s life.
“Resource officers are there to protect the kids. Resource officers are there to protect the building. Resource officers are not there to do the teachers’ work,” he said. “When we look at these resource officers, their position has changed, and they’ve changed rather drastically. As a result, we are developing what is called the school-to-prison pipeline.”