In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.
That A-Team was lead by the charming, smooth-talking, and grey-haired John "Hannibal" Smith, who was also their commander when they served during the Vietnam War.
Flash forward to 2006, and here in Charleston County, where the charming, smooth-talking, and grey-haired Arthur Ravenel Jr. is trying to lead his own A-Team-style revolt in the upcoming county School Board elections this November.
Three of Ravenel's A ("accountability") Team are already in place — incumbents Ray Toler, Sandra Engelman, and Lurline Fishburne — and the fourth — Robin Beard, a three-term Tennessee Congressman who retired East of the Cooper after finishing a third career that included working for NATO — announced his candidacy yesterday, Tuesday, March 28.
Beard brings with him serious political chops. After representing Middle Tennessee for 10 years in Congress until 1982, he served as NATO's assistant secretary general, the highest U.S. post at NATO Headquarters, under presidents Bush (41) and Reagan.
(Perhaps Beard waiting so long is appropriate, as Hannibal would wait until the last moment to "spring" his pilot, Capt. H.M. "Howlin' Mad" Murdock, from mental hospitals to fly whatever they had stolen.)
A former state representative and senator, as well as a former U.S. Congressman, Ravenel is two years removed from his last term in the state Senate where he helped secure the funding for the new Cooper River Bridge, which bears his name.
In the wings lurks state Rep. John Graham Altman III, who now says he is "undecided" as to whether he will run for School Board, where he served from 1976-86 with dubious distinction.
Altman's announcement that he is considering running for the West Ashley seat currently held by A-Teamer Engelman, who had relied on his opinions in the past, begs two questions.
One, is Altman fulfilling the role of Gen. Stockwell (Robert Vaughn), who tirelessly hounded the original A-Team? Two, is he doing it out of spite after allegedly being spurned by the Republican Party for reelection support?
Where Hannibal's A-Team would follow any plan he concocted, like hijacking a plane to rescue a journalist kidnapped in San Rio Blanco ("Mexican Slayride," episode one), Ravenel's plan is a little more prosaic: increase the quality of public school education, improve graduation rates, and control spending.
But what worries some locals is exactly how Ravenel plans to do it, as the other Hannibal was always ordering B.A. "Bad Attitude" Baracus (Mr. T) to turn their van into some sort of a spiked war-wagon using his mechanical genius and a TIG welder.
There is growing concern that Ravenel may introduce a similarly destructive amount of divisiveness to a Board that seems to have finally calmed down under the steadying hand of Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson after years of rancor and controversy. The local NAACP chapter already made a preemptive strike, trying to force Ravenel to say whether or not he plans to fire Goodloe-Johnson.
But before the new A-Team comes to the rescue, it needs to be asked, does the Charleston County School District (CCSD) really need saving?
It seems like locals have been bitchin' about the area's crappy public school system since 1850, the year before Charleston erected its first public school building. But last year, for the first time ever, the CCSD was rated "good" on its state-issued report card, which ranges from poor to excellent.
Of course, that's a South Carolina "good" rating, but it says something positive is happening in a district that still has some of the worst schools in the state — Baptist Hill, Burke.
"Yes, it's getting easier to sell the area because of the improvement in the schools," says David Ginn, president and chief financial officer of the public/private Charleston Regional Development Alliance, which promotes the tri-county area to relocating businesses and industries.
The state's annual education report cards have been Ginn's biggest tool for selling the area. He says the report cards, which began in 2001, give him objective grades on individual schools that he can pair with good living areas as part of his pitch to interested companies.
When asked for his opinion on Goodloe-Johnson, who was brought in from Texas to improve the district, Ginn says she is a "very good speaker and energetic."
Ginn's praise for the superintendent seems mild compared to what Allen Wutzdorff, the director of the Education Foundation for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, has to say.
"Personally, I think the district has good leadership in the person of Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson," says Wutzdorff, who is also enamored with her Plan for Excellence. "It's a clear plan that will take time. No superintendent can transform the school district overnight."
Praise from the business community about the district's leadership and improvements is certainly a modern phenomenon, especially after Goodloe-Johnson's predecessor, Ron McWhirt, oversaw the misappropriation of $61 million from the district's building fund. Back in the '90s, McWhirt's predecessor Chip Zullinger wasn't even afforded a rail when he was run out of town.
The biggest, and most obvious, improvements have come in the school district's physical plant. Ten years ago, many schools had leaky roofs and some didn't even have air-conditioning or heat.
Today, armed with an enormous capital improvements bond, the CCSD has built new schools across the district while repairing and renovating older buildings.
In the 10 years since Altman's last full year on the Board, the public school district has seen its average SAT scores outclimb national score increases by an almost three-to-one rate.
In the 1994-95 school year, the county public school district's SAT scores were 476 for the verbal section and 460 for the math section, for a combined score of 936.
Last year, the school district's scores rose to 498 verbal, a 22-point increase, and 489 math, an additional 29 points, bringing the average to 987, a 51-point jump from the end of Altman's era.
By comparison, the national averages went from a 1,010 combined score in 1995 to 1,028 in 2005, only an 18-point increase. (All of these statistics have been adjusted for recentering.)
As impressive as the county's increases may be, naysayers would point out that local scores still lag national averages by nearly 40 points, and the state is still a bottom-dweller in national aptitude test rankings, graduation rates, and etc.
Speaking of the naysayers, Altman and Ravenel, constant critics of public education, don't fare too well on report cards handed out by the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers' union, and its little sister, the South Carolina Education Association (SCEA).
Both unions track bills, motions, and amendments that revolve around public K12 education funding and policy, and school employment rights and benefits.
In 2003, the SCEA tracked 22 bills, motions, and amendments in the S.C. House of Representatives. For that year, "Cousin" Arthur voted in-step with the state teachers' union's agenda exactly zero times. Zip. Nada. O-fer 22.
In 2004, Ravenel's last year in the state Senate and the second year the SCEA compiled its legislative report card, his score zoomed up to an 88. Having missed voting on only one of 10 bills the SCEA was tracking, Ravenel voted with their agenda eight of the remaining nine times.
That's still a 44 average on state education issues over two years, though.
Nationally, Ravenel's grades were a little worse. Over his four consecutive two-year terms representing South Carolina in the U.S. House, he averaged a lowly 42.75, with his worst biennium being his last, 1993-94, when he was awarded a 24.
As bad as that may appear to some education supporters, Altman's SCEA grades have been far worse.
In 2003, tracking the same 22 bills, Altman voted with the SCEA agenda 6 percent of the time. Not as bad as Ravenel's 0 that same year, but obviously out of step with the SCEA.
In 2004, Altman had 59 opportunities to vote with the education lobby, and did so — seven times, for a score of 17. He didn't vote on seven of the measures.
In 2005, the SCEA was tracking 30 votes, including an important and controversial voucher bill championed by Gov. Mark Sanford. Altman voted with the SCEA three times, which actually gave him a grade of 15 because he didn't vote on 10 of the issues. He was a staunch supporter of vouchers.
Rounding up his scores, Altman's average grade comes out to an unlucky 13.
So the two men wanting to save the school district have an education-friendly, three-report card average of just over 33. That kind of average wouldn't get them into Harvard, much less Furman, College of Charleston, The Citadel ....
Making Ol' Timey Lemonade ... Out of Lemons
While some might see his collective education voting record as a blight, Arthur Ravenel Jr. sees it as a wild success.
"What you've got to understand is that any criticism from either one of those organizations is, in the community I represent, an A-plus," says Ravenel of the NEA and SCEA.
According to Ravenel, the NEA is one of the "biggest enemies" public education has, and, like other unions, isn't good for America.
"The strongest unions in the nation hold sway in Washington, D.C., and it's incredible what they spend on education there," says Ravenel. "In New York, I don't even know what the figures are; I live in a limited world that is limited to Charleston County, South Carolina, where I am a resident."
Ravenel, speaking as a county resident, says he is "dissatisfied with the product the Charleston County school system is producing, and for that reason I am running with other good conservatives for the Charleston County School Board."
The other seated members of the A-Team — Toler, Fishburne, Sandra Engelman and her husband David — are generally regarded as the Republican wing of the Board, with Brian Moody straddling the right-middle, and Nancy Cook, Susan Simons, Gregg Meyers, and Hillery Douglas serving as the "liberal" or Democratic wing.
One of the main problems Ravenel has with the district is how expensive it has become.
"How is it that property assessments are constantly and substantially going up, new construction and growth are dramatic in the county, and the tax millage for school purposes and for operational purposes continues to rise?" asks Ravenel.
"Why? I don't know why. I don't know why is it that the millage is constantly going up to support a school system whose population is constantly declining. I cannot give you answer on that yet; I'm not there, but I'm going to be."
Ravenel is correct on the money, at least.
The school district's budget, especially as it pertains to the amount culled from local property owners' taxes, has ballooned. For the 2005-06 school year, the CCSD's total general operating fund expenditures were budgeted at $301 million, with $198 million of that coming from local sources.
That's way up from 1994-95 when the district's general operating fund expenditures were only $160 million, and county taxpayers only had to kick in $77 million.
"Three hundred and one million dollars they're receiving," Ravenel marvels, "when the combined budgets of Mt. Pleasant, the City of Charleston, and the City of North Charleston is only $225 million. That's $75 million more than their combined budgets.
"And then almost half, half, of those who enter ninth grade do not graduate from high school," laments Ravenel.
CCSD spokesperson Jerry Adams, for one, has serious problems with Ravenel's simplistic rendering of the district's budget growth.
"How much was the price of gas in 1995?" Adams asks rhetorically. "Seriously, I don't understand how he makes his comparisons of the budget ... Everything's gone up, from buying the food for the cafeterias to purchasing the fuel to run the school buses. The cost of everything is dramatically higher in this economy now than it was in 1995."
Adams well remembers the day he was covering the Statehouse — as well as Altman and Ravenel, as a reporter first with The Post and Courier and later The State — when the state's budget first hit $1 billion.
"These days, the state budget is $5 billion," says Adams.
Adams isn't the only CCSD staffer at odds with Ravenel's rhetoric, as Dr. Janet Rose-Baele, the director of the district's office of Assessment and Accountability, wonders where he is getting some of his numbers.
Rose-Baele says that while the district's student enrollment did grow to between 45,000-46,000 at one point, its 2004-05 numbers weren't that much different from a decade ago. She reports that there were roughly 43,800 students enrolled for the 1994-95 school year, and there were 43,329 at the 45-day mark last year.
Rose-Baele says Ravenel must be getting his graduation rates from a "Manhattan Project of some sort." She quotes specific and more difficult to attain graduation rates that, while still woefully inadequate, are a far cry better than Ravenel's data.
According to her records, Rose-Baele says 55.2 percent of CCSD's kids who entered the ninth grade had graduated on time (within four years) by 2002. The next year, 2003, the percentage grew to 68.2, before topping out in 2004 at 74.2 percent. That number dropped to 70.2 percent in 2005, but still shows an upward trend, says Rose-Baele.
Everyone's a Critic
Ultimately, Ravenel says his plan is to introduce accountability to the district, to make sure scores go up, costs go down, and kids stay in school for the duration.
So far, Ravenel's plan for his A-Team is, he admits, still somewhat vague. He says it's too early in the election cycle to discuss soft positions that will later become hardened stands.
"How can you write an in-depth article about a team when we've not completely defined our mission, or rounded out our membership? We've not even come out with our statement of intent!"
"Really, it's early as the devil."
(Well, Cousin Arthur, according to statements made two weeks ago by your fellow Republican, Rep. Altman, there is no time better than right now to get involved with the district.)
But one thing Ravenel is comfortable talking about is his plan to deconsolidate the school district from within by "moving a greater percentage of county schools from public management to private sector management."
Charter schools, woofs Ravenel, "are the greatest thing since sliced bread."
"Private sector management and public financing, what could be better than that? I look forward to the day when charter schools are freed of all the bureaucracy of the Taj Mahal," he says of a plan to form a statewide charter schools district. "Taj Mahal" is a nickname critics coined years ago for the CCSD's "opulent" 75 Calhoun St. headquarters.
Despite what his detractors have claimed, Ravenel says he is not running with the objective of firing Goodloe-Johnson.
"How could I be running to get rid of the superintendent when I don't even know what kind of job she's doing? I'm going to find out if I'm elected to the Board; and if she's not doing a real good job, maybe with assistance from a few new Board members she can do better."
Education, says Ravenel, is the A-Team's focus, "not personnel or personalities."
School Boardmember Susan Simons, who would likely come in fourth in a four-way race for the two East Cooper seats she and Gregg Meyers currently inhabit with Ravenel and Beard, believes that if Ravenel's "slate" gets elected, "we will be setting the district back 30 years."
Even though her chances probably got slimmer on the day this week when former Congressman Robin Beard (R-Tenn.) announced his candidacy, Simons is resolute about her intentions of putting up a fight.
"I want to run very badly because I believe in Charleston's Plan for Excellence, and I think this campaign provides a great opportunity for the rest of the county to learn about the plan and all the amazing work the teachers and administrators are doing."
Meyers, too, wants to run, but is up-front about his plans to spend no more than $15,000 on the upcoming campaign, the same amount he spent when he won the special election for his current seat.
Meyers, a former federal attorney who came to town to clean up the mess left behind by the federal Department of Justice when it failed to integrate the school district in the mid '80s, thinks the real reason Ravenel is running is to introduce partisan politics into the School Board race.
"Sen. Ravenel tried to get single-member district elections when he was last in Columbia, but Gov. Hodges vetoed it," says Meyers. "I think this is just an alternative way — getting high-profile Republicans to join with other Republicans to bring partisan politics to issues about children."
Not Just an Inside Job
Ravenel's argument — that unions, like the NEA and 11,000-member SCEA, hurt public education — seems off-base when you compare the scores of states with strong unions, like New York and Massachusetts, to South Carolina. To be fair, depending on the year, every state in the union scores better than South Carolina.
Unlike Rose-Baele and Adams, who have to couch their responses knowing they will most likely be reporting to Ravenel come November, Jon Butzon obviously feels free to bomb away on Ravenel and Altman.
"That John and Arthur are running again does not make a lot of sense to me," says Butzon, the head of the Charleston Education Network. "Altman was on the School Board for 20 years ... and if he wanted to 'fix' public education, he could have done so during the time he was on the School Board, or from the 10 years following he spent in the legislature, but he hasn't done anything there, either.
"It's not like both of these guys didn't have a more than adequate opportunity," says Butzon. "Ravenel, bless his heart, was in the state House of Representatives, as well as in the state Senate, and in the U.S. Congress. I don't know what better place there is to do something about public education."
"I just don't want the School Board to become the area's elephant graveyard," says Butzon, taking a swipe at the GOP's mascot and the ages of Altman (72), Ravenel (79), and Beard (66).
One School Boardmember, who requested anonymity, joked that if both Altman and Ravenel were elected, "we would have to start our meetings a lot earlier."
At least one former School Boardmember, Robert New, thinks Ravenel's motives are "pure."
"Arthur wants to take us back 50 years," says New, a James Island Charter High founder who warred constantly with Altman when they both served on the Board.
"Arthur would like to take us back to the days of his time spent at St. Andrews High School in the 1940s — they'd all like to go back to the 'Ozzie and Harriet' days, back when they could talk fondly of segregated schools."
"I can smell the formaldehyde," quips Waring Howe, a local attorney and a member of the national Democratic Party Committee.
The Altman Question
But what about John Graham Altman III? Will he run or won't he for School Board? Will he betray an apparent protege, Sandra Engelman, and take on an old friend by throwing his hat in the ring?
"The word on the street is that the only reason he announced he was running for School Board was because he took it badly that his own political party wasn't going to support him in the race for his House seat, so he thought, 'Well, I'll go mess with the A-Team,'" claims Butzon.
Ravenel welcomes Altman to the race, should he decide to run, but says his longtime friend would be running against him, even though they would be campaigning in different parts of the county.
"John is hurting and is making a lot of comments," says Ravenel, tersely.
Actually, Altman has refused comment for several days for this story. But he did agree to answer a single question as to whether he really intends to run against Engelman for her seat representing West Ashley on the School Board.
His response was terse, too.
"I haven't decided," said Graham. "I'm not being hostile, I'm just not ready to talk yet."
If this were an A-Team episode, and Butzon and others are right about his motivation, then Altman is coming off like an aging star, pouting in his dressing room, refusing to come to the set until all the other players show him some respect.
On Next Week's Show
For all his pessimism about their motives, former Boardmember Robert New is optimistic that the mere mention of Ravenel and Altman will spur supremely qualified Democrats to step forward and challenge them ... or just Cousin Arthur.
New, who won't run, also wonders if the elderly Ravenel will be ready for phone calls the day after the election from local citizens demanding why there's no toilet paper in their kids' school.
As for Boardmember Sandra Engelman, she has little time for pundits who point at Ravenel's age as proof he's unfit to serve.
"My Aunt Fanny! Arthur is well-versed on all the current issues," says Engelman. "He wants to see our schools shine, our people shine. ... He'll show everybody that the School Board can still be highly effective and not out of control fiscally."
Ravenel shares Engelman's sunny assessment of his readiness. "I've decided to ride off into the sunrise rather than the sunset," he says with an obvious nod to President Reagan.
"Charleston County needs new leadership on this board," says Denver Merrill, a county resident and the spokesperson for South Carolinians for Responsible Government, Gov. Sanford's "grassroots" effort to push through school choice legislation. "This county needs some people on these boards who will take a hard look at how these dollars are spent."
Vulnerable Boardmember Susan Simons still believes the majority of the community's dialogue about its schools is driven by naysayers.
Simons says the coming election will give Charleston County voters the opportunity to say whether they want "to go back to the Good Ol' Boy system, or if they want to continue with professionals in education administering the school district."
CCSD spokesperson Jerry Adams may have put it best when he said that Ravenel's presence and Altman's potential presence in the race "makes for great theater and probably for a lot of great quotes. It would be fun to cover: I just hope the outcome would be good for education."
Who knows what the coming months will bring? But one thing's for sure — Mr. T's character ain't getting on no plane, Hannibal. "I pity the fool."
Come Fly With Us:
Over the past decade, Charleston Countys K12 public schools have seen a surge in average SAT scores, even with slightly more students taking the test compared to 10 years ago. In fact, CCSDs increases in SAT averages for 1995-2005 nearly tripled the nations increase, 51 points to 18. During the same decade, South Carolina made the biggest gains in the nation, 32 points, between 1999-2004.