It doesn't matter who you vote for in the next presidential election. Statistically, you are less than a drop in a bucket. But do you know where your vote really counts? The Charleston County School District Board of Trustees.
Big issues are afoot. Voters (meaning you) will decide in a referendum on Nov. 4 whether to extend the penny sales tax that has been funding new building construction across the district, and the candidates running for the board need to solve the problem of closing the district's persistent racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.
Although candidates are elected to represent specific zones, any voter in Charleston County can vote for all of the open seats. Read on, and choose wisely.
Cindy Bohn Coats (Incumbent)
First elected in 2010, Cindy Bohn Coats is now wrapping up her second year as chair of the school board. It wasn't an enviable position when she took over leadership of the sometimes-fractious board from board member Chris Fraser, who oversaw some nasty infighting and wild tangents, but Coats says she is glad to hear other board members' points of view.
"Can you think of a more emotional topic than children's education? We know emotion is a natural piece of that, second only to the fact that we're spending your money," Coats says. "I think discourse is always good. I feel like every person who's on the Charleston County school board brings something to the board, and the rest of us should hear that."
Coats represents the North Area, where some parents have been calling for expansion of nontraditional school choice programs including magnet schools, International Baccalaureate, and Montessori programs. She says that if she is re-elected, one of her goals will be to promote equal access to school-choice programs across the district. She also praises the introduction of new ideas like Brentwood Academy, a partnership between the district and the private Meeting Street Academy that will allow the private company to turn the closed Brentwood Middle School property in North Charleston into a new elementary school.
"As many programs as there are in downtown Charleston, they should be east of the Cooper so you don't have to cross the river, they should be out on the rural islands so you don't have to drive all the way up Savannah Highway, and they should be in the north area," Coats says.
During her time on the board, Coats takes credit for including more citizens in decisions and for making board agenda packets available online. She says she would like to invite more community input, push for greater transparency, and encourage the board to place more trust in school administrators.
"There comes a point when as a board member you have to remember that you employ experts, and you expect them to be able to communicate those plans to you," Coats says. "You expect them to find the best practices."
Kelvin D. Curtis
Born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Kelvin D. Curtis has been living in North Charleston for two years. He has worked with students for a decade through programs including the Christian student organization First Priority and StandUp for Kids, a ministry for homeless children. He also ran his own video production business for seven years, and he says his knowledge of business budgeting will be helpful on the school board.
"If it's a business, run it like an effective business. Understand your budgets; don't just throw out any numbers. You don't need millions of dollars to create a lot of things," Curtis says. "Money don't make kids happy; love makes kids happy. Someone that knows that they care, pushes them to be better, that don't take a lot of money."
Curtis says he was critical of some recent school board spending decisions, including the choice to add a new building for Lincoln High School (at a cost of at least $30 million) to the list of potential projects funded by the penny sales tax. "A lot of decisions I've seen on school board are not thoroughly checked," Curtis says.
When he goes to the ballot box on Election Day, Curtis says he will vote no to the referendum that would extend the penny sales tax. "Why would you continue to give another $500 million to some people that pretty much handled your money ineffectively?" Curtis says.
Curtis says he has heard from parents who say that board members never set foot in their schools. He says he would change that.
"I like to put my foot on the ground," Curtis says. "If I'm able to be on the school board, trust me, I will be in the schools."
When Shanté Ellis' son started kindergarten in 2009, he was zoned to attend North Charleston Elementary School. Because the school was failing on its state report card, Ellis opted to transfer her son to Murray-LaSaisne Elementary School.
"Like most parents, I wanted to do the best thing for my kid, which is get them the best education possible," Ellis says. "And I work on James Island, so it seemed like a good fit so that way I could be an active parent."
Ellis, a recreation administrative manager with the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, immediately joined the PTA at Murray-LaSaisne, where she has been PTA president for three years. Now she wants to take her ideas to the school board.
"We need to do a better job of marketing our successes in Charleston County," Ellis says. "And those that aren't successes, we need to do a better job of closing that gap, communicating with families on how we plan to close that gap, and getting everybody actively involved."
For starters, Ellis says the district would do well to listen to its teachers when they have ideas.
"I want to give teachers a safe sounding board," she says. "I think they are the key to come up with some of the most creative solutions to our issues, but we aren't able to hear from them for fear of possibly losing their jobs."
Ellis says teachers should be paid according to good performance and held accountable when they fail. Among her other ideas, she would like to create apprenticeship opportunities with local companies, hire more teachers who are able to teach IT disciplines, and revisit the district's student promotion policy, which has allowed some students to reach ninth grade while reading on a fourth-grade level.
"If my child cannot read on their appropriate reading level, passing them on to the next grade with no plan as to how you're going to close his reading gap, it just doesn't add up," Ellis says.
Kate Darby got her first taste of school board politics as chair of the Wando High School Improvement Council, where she advocated for increased funding for the state's largest high school and construction of the new Center for Advanced Studies. If elected, Darby says she would bring a good understanding of a board member's responsibilities.
"The board is supposed to set the vision and hold the superintendent accountable, but not to micromanage the day-to-day operations of the school district," Darby says.
Darby describes herself as a fiscal conservative. She supports the extension of the penny sales tax, but she says the board needs to make a 15-year plan for its capital programs.
"Our community is growing so fast that we can't just be doing this every four to six years. We've got to have a long-term plan," Darby says.
Darby is the director of administration at J. Henry Stuhr Funeral Chapels and Crematory, and she has served in leadership positions at nonprofit organizations including the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. When it comes to teacher evaluations, she says she hopes the district can learn to run more like a business.
"I hope we can get to a point where it's like a business, and if someone is not performing, you have a process where you communicate with them and performance improves or you make a change," Darby says. She does not, however, think that teacher salaries should be tied to student test scores.
Darby says her No. 1 priority on the school board would be closing the district's achievement gaps. She says she would also bring a renewed focus on that goal to the board.
"There's just not a lot of continuity. The board seems to be making decisions and then changing their minds and going back," Darby says. "What's the vision? Let's follow that vision. Let's equip the schools to accomplish these goals."
Sarah Shad Johnson
Formerly a paralegal for the Department of Justice and a children's ministry worker at Seacoast Church, Sarah Shad Johnson helped found the parent advocacy group Charleston Area Community Voice for Education three years ago.
Her group is affiliated with Parents Across America, a group that pushes to reform No Child Left Behind and reduce schools' emphasis on high-stakes testing. Locally, they've been pushing for evidence-based practices in schools.
"I think there have been a lot of programs the district does kind of experimental, and they use the at-risk schools as guinea pigs and they always fail," Johnson says. "If I'm on the board, I know so much about what's worked and what hasn't worked, when they come to me with, for example, Teach for America, I can tell you that is not a good idea." Johnson has also criticized the Value Added Model (VAM), a method of teacher evaluation that incorporates student test scores. Her group spoke out against VAM when it was introduced as part of the district's BRIDGE program, and she currently sits on the district's BRIDGE steering committee.
Johnson says she wants to expand preschool programs across the district. "I want to make sure that it's not just something we check off the list. If we're going to do it, it's got to be done right, and it's not just babysitting," Johnson says.
Johnson says she will personally vote yes on the referendum to extend the penny sales tax because she sees a need for new school facilities.
"I live right there near the Park West schools where all the 8th graders are in trailers with no bathrooms and no running water," Johnson says. "And it's not just Mt. Pleasant. It's all the schools. It's a severe problem."
As an attorney specializing in corporate law and business litigation, Chris Staubes says he has learned to bridge gaps and act as a mediator. It's a skill he says will come in handy on the school board.
"You've got a very business-like group of people on one side, and then you've got more of a follow-your-heart group of people," Staubes says, adding that he tends to fall on the business-like side. Staubes says he sees value in both sides of the board, but he thinks the board as a whole could use some help with its decision-making process.
"It really does look like there's not much discussion beforehand, and they walk out there and make decisions based on the crowd in front of them and who is the most impassioned. That's really not a good way to run an organization," Staubes says.
Staubes describes himself as a fiscal conservative. He supports the extension of the penny sales tax to pay for the district's building projects, but he says the district needs to plan further ahead for maintenance on its facilities. He says that if elected, he would like to calculate the useful life of roofs, HVAC systems, lighting, and other building components in district schools.
"They have not done the job that most businesses would do if they had to go out and earn money," Staubes says.
Staubes says he will advocate for school choice offerings throughout the district, and he will push for new schools to keep up with growth.
"Obviously, the school building has not kept up with population growth, especially in Mt. Pleasant," Staubes says.
A retired journalist with 38 years' experience at The Post and Courier, Edward Fennell says he has probably attended meetings for every county, town, and city government in the tri-county area. He says that experience has given him a pretty good idea of what people want from their elected officials.
"I think they want good government at a reasonable price, and they want fairness in procedures," Fennell says.
Looking at the list of items to be funded by the proposed penny sales tax extension, Fennell says the district could stand to prioritize its building projects and trim down what he calls a "Santa list" with goodies for every part of the district.
"I wonder how much more is legitimately needed," Fennell says. "One thing I've seen as a reporter covering government, when the government has too much money, it doesn't get spent wisely."
As a former journalist, Fennell also says he wants to make sure the board is run in a transparent fashion. He says the school board spends too much time before its meetings in executive session, which the public cannot see.
"Of course, they can't take votes in executive session, but I think they're doing the crux of debating behind closed doors, and they come out and there's just a minimal discussion of what's going on," Fennell says.
Fennell says he would also like to expand technical and vocational schools in every area of the district. And he says the thing that initially got him interested in the school board was improving literacy, particularly in homes where parents don't read to their children.
"We need to identify these people and get volunteers to either go to the home or come to school, maybe after-school programs," Fennell says. "I thought we could bring in local successful people to say, 'I am where I am because I learned to read.'"
Eric L. Mack
Aside from his work as a pastor at Bethany Baptist Church and a data coordinator in MUSC's radiation department, Eric L. Mack has spent a lot of time volunteering on the Sea Islands. He served 12 years on the District 9 constituent school board, and currently he works with School Improvement Councils at island schools.
As a school board member, he says he would focus on solving a problem he has noticed in rural schools. He wants parents to be more involved in their children's education.
"Simply put, if a parent is actively involved in their child's education, the turnaround as far as that child performing well will definitely increase, and the number of suspensions will decrease," Mack says.
Mack says he would also keep an eye on the racial makeup of teaching staff as compared to the student population in each school.
"Say we have a predominantly high number of one race versus the next," Mack says. "The teacher population needs to be balanced out so that we have an equal communication level within the classroom and with the parents. I think they will be able to relate better."
He also says he would work to ensure rural schools get the same access to technology as the bigger schools in the district's urban and suburban areas. And when it comes to teachers, he says they aren't paid what they are worth.
"I want to take a look and make sure our teachers are being paid the market value compared to our neighboring districts, making sure there are some incentives there," Mack says.