The Charleston County Republican Party is considering a resolution to abolish the Charleston County School District and create three to five autonomous districts within the county.
The resolution was proposed by former county school board member Elizabeth Moffly, who was a conservative thorn in the side of some district leaders during her time on the board. Party Chairman John Steinberger says the proposal has been met with enthusiasm by some members of the Charleston County legislative delegation, who could take the resolution to the Statehouse in the form of a bill if the party passes it at a meeting in March.
"It's an idea whose time has come," Steinberger says. "The Charleston County School District is unwieldy and unmanageable and dysfunctional, and I think that locally controlled school boards would be more responsible to the students who go to school there and their parents, and that's where we need to be."
The resolution, which received a first reading at the county party's Feb. 9 meeting, says that the district "has grown beyond the ability to properly service its citizens at the local level" and contends that "government closest to the people best serves those who are governed." The resolution does not specify boundaries for the new school districts, but Steinberger says the following five districts were proposed at the party meeting:
• East Cooper (Mt. Pleasant, Awendaw, McClellanville)
• West Ashley
• Sea Islands (Johns Island, Kiawah Island, Edisto Island, Seabrook Island, Ravenel, Hollywood)
• North Area (North Charleston, Ladson, Lincolnville)
• Peninsular Charleston, James Island, and Folly Beach
Asked whether he thought the new school districts would generate skyrocketing costs as each district hires its own superintendent and administrative staff, Steinberger said, "Absolutely not."
"Whatever the millage is now would remain the millage, and they would allocate the money on a per-pupil basis," Steinberger says. "It wouldn't increase expenses. Really, our bureaucracy in Charleston County School District is way too big, it's off the charts, and if we had newly elected school boards that would control costs, you wouldn't have that big bureaucracy. You wouldn't have diversity consultants and people that aren't needed on the payroll."
Steinberger is referring, of course, to diversity consultant Kevin Clayton, who was hired by the district to promote diversity measures in schools. Clayton became Public Enemy No. 1 for some Charleston conservatives when he helped conduct an investigation of alleged racial insensitivity by the Academic Magnet High School football team and called for the firing of the team's coach. In the end, the coach was reinstated, District Superintendent Nancy McGinley resigned, and the district voted earlier this month not to renew Clayton's contract.
Asked if the Academic Magnet controversy prompted the resolution, Steinberger said, "I believe what [McGinley] did was wrong and that we should not have consultants in there interrogating students and treating them like criminals. But that's really not the issue. The issue is that the bureaucracy is too big and it's too unaccountable."
According to Steinberger, current district-wide magnet schools like Academic Magnet could continue to be available to all students in the county under the abolition plan.
"One of the ideas is you could have a pool that's managed countywide with people like school psychologists that could rotate among the school districts," Steinberger says. "The magnet schools would continue to exist. They would be managed by the local independent school districts, and they would be available to students throughout the county."
Reached by phone, CCSD Board of Trustees Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats declined to comment on the proposed resolution.
If the resolution is successful, it would create a county school system reminiscent of the mid-1960s, when the county had eight autonomous school districts loosely governed by a county board of education. In 1967, the state legislature passed Act 340, consolidating the districts into the newly created Charleston County School District to ensure equal funding across the county. The constituent boards continued to exist as elected bodies, but with weakened powers.
Some state representatives sought to do away with the constituent boards altogether in 2004, and a 2007 revision to Act 340 further weakened the constituent boards' power. Today the constituent boards primarily handle school transfers and student discipline issues, with budgetary and policymaking power ceded to the countywide Board of Trustees.
If the Charleston County School District were to break up into smaller districts, the county would not be unique in the state. Dorchester County has two school districts, Orangeburg County has three, Anderson County has five, and Spartanburg County has seven.
Moffly says she has been interested in breaking up the school district since 2011, when she was still a member of the district's Board of Trustees. She says she arranged a meeting with then-Sen. Glenn McConnell to discuss the idea.
"Glenn told us there were two ways you could go about it: You could either amend the act itself or you could have a referendum. And I think the easiest way is have the legislative delegation agree to amend the act. I think the General Assembly, because it's specific to Charleston County, would vote for it. That's my plan."
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston County Republican, says he has not yet seen the resolution but would consider it if the Charleston County Republican Party passed it.
"When they pass it and when I read it and ascertain exactly what they're wanting, then I'll make a decision as to whether I want to put my shoulder to the wheel and help get it done or whether it's not in the best interest," Limehouse says.
A Facebook page called Citizens United to Abolish CCSD was created in the summer of 2014 and has 100 likes so far.
The Charleston County GOP's resolution comes at a troubled time for some of the district's eight constituent boards.
In the St. Andrew's Constituent District, voters recently installed Henry Copeland as a constituent board member. Copeland, a frequent district critic, was once banned from district property after some district employees said he disrupted meetings and made them afraid for their physical safety. Copeland said in late January that some school security systems still have him on their no-trespassing list, despite his being an elected official of the district.
Elsewhere in the county, Moultrie Constituent District board member Anthony Brown made the news last March when Columbia TV station WIS revealed that he owed $55,300 worth of fines to the State Ethics Commission. When reporter Jody Barr tried to question Brown at a public meeting, Brown reportedly pushed Barr up against a wall, leading the news station to call 911 and file an assault complaint.
In the St. James-Santee Constituent District, board member Joe Bowers has gotten into a public spat with School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats. Following the arrest of a Goose Creek High School assistant principal who allegedly had sex with a student, Bowers posted on Facebook, "This will be an interesting case to follow since the 'victim' is the age of consent. I have a gut feeling there is much more to this than meets the eye," according to the Post and Courier. Coats reportedly sent Bowers an email in which she called him "an idiot" and wrote, "Remove that post from your Facebook page or I will loud you out as completely inept to serve the students."
Steinberger says the county GOP's resolution was not inspired by any of the friction between constituent boards and the county board. He says the central issues are establishing local control of schools and reducing bureaucratic excess in the district.
"We have people at [the district office at] 75 Calhoun St. who do nothing to enhance the quality of education in Charleston County," Steinberger says. "When we make it more local, the local taxpayers will say, 'No, we don't need all this largesse. Let the principals run their schools, and let's reduce bureaucracy and get results.'
"And that's how we're going to do it is having more autonomy for individual schools and reward those who are successful and hold those who are not successful accountable for their failures. That's how the free market works, and that will improve schools throughout Charleston County."
The Charleston County Republican Party will vote on whether to pass the resolution at its next meeting, which is scheduled for March 9 at 7 p.m. in North Charleston City Hall.