Charleston County voters can cast their ballot for all six open seats, regardless of where they live. Two seats are up for grabs in North Charleston.
There isn't usually much levity in school board candidate forums, but the Rev. Chris Collins, an incumbent seeking a second term, drew a few chuckles from the crowd at a recent League of Women Voters event when he spoke about the board's supposed dysfunction.
"I didn't know we had a dysfunctional board," Collins said. "We all get along. We all like each other."
He's serious, though. Asked to elaborate on the comment in a later interview, Collins said, "People confuse arguing or disagreement with success and prosperity. Even though there's always questions and challenges, that's what makes a board good." He says he sees the board's lengthy debates as a sign that board members are doing their homework and bringing up important concerns while in the public eye.
Collins, the owner of Charleston Appliances and pastor of Healing Ministries Baptist Church Center, ran for mayor of North Charleston in 2011 on a platform that included stationing horse-mounted police with shotguns in residential areas (A potential burglar, he told the City Paper, would have to think, "Can I outrun this horse? Can I tote a TV?").
In his first term on the school board, Collins says the three things he is proudest of are 1.) starting the literacy academy program, 2.) crafting Vision 2016, and 3.) reducing the number of student expulsions from 150 per year to 43 per year. "We feel like parents and teachers can work things out without destroying a child's school career," Collins says.
If re-elected, Collins says he will never vote to suspend teachers' scheduled annual salary increases again. He also says he wants to build more schools to ease crowding in Mt. Pleasant, expand music programs, offer more sports in Title I middle schools, and offer more hands-on courses on topics like plumbing and green technology.
For the district's lowest-performing schools, Collins suggests that the district could try hiring more male principals, especially ones who come from "a similar background" to the students. "If you bring in a person who's upper-middle-class, who never has known poverty, then no matter what color he is, it isn't going to matter," Collins says. "When you stick him in there, he's going to have a hard time relating to the kids who've been impoverished all their lives."
Tom Ducker says he learned the art of persuasion from his 26 years in the Air Force, which included an assignment in Turkey and two tours in the Pentagon. He has three grandchildren in Charleston County public schools now, and he hopes to use his art to turn the school board around.
Ducker says that a key to saving the district's lowest-performing schools is to stem the tide of parents transferring their children to other schools. The student population at North Charleston High School, for instance, has shrunk by more than half since 2003 due to a clause of the No Child Left Behind Act that allows parents to relocate their students within the district if the school in their attendance area consistently fails to meet improvement goals.
"Parents, I really don't blame them, they're saying, 'I don't want my son or daughter in a failing school, and gosh, there's Wando over there, and the law allows me to apply for a transfer,'" Ducker says. To make a school more attractive, he says, the district needs to put the best possible teachers in the school. And to get the best teachers, the district needs a better method of evaluating teachers.
Ducker recognizes that teachers have expressed apprehension over the teacher grading system being tested by state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais in some Upstate schools, particularly because it incorporates students' standardized test scores. A bad year of students, in other words, could hurt a teacher's career prospects. "I think the teachers need to sort of calm down about this," Ducker says. "I hope we're not burying our head in the sand and saying we'll develop our own evaluation."
On the topic of charter schools, Ducker is slightly less enthusiastic than other candidates like Brian Thomas and Bruce Smith. He says he would "probably support" any proposed charter schools, but he doesn't think every failing school can be transformed into a charter school. "I don't know if that applies everywhere," he says. "You have to have community support."
Ducker brings at least one unique idea to solving the school board's dysfunction: Board meetings are on Monday nights, so why not have an informational meeting the Wednesday beforehand? At these meetings, which Ducker says he would model after North Charleston City Council's Committee of the Whole sessions, no votes would be taken, but the chairman would hand out the agenda and all necessary documents for the next week's board meeting. Current board member Elizabeth Kandrac has often complained about receiving these materials as late as Friday, leaving her little time to read and discuss. "That would solve so much of the petty bickering that goes on," Ducker says.
Mattese Miller Lecque has kept busy since retiring from a career in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Army Reserve in the early 2000s. She worked as a long-term substitute teacher in middle and high school for a year and a half, and then she started investing her time in Charleston County schools. She served as a PTA treasurer at North Charleston High School, and she currently works with an after-school literacy program at Hursey Elementary School. As the chairwoman of student enrichment with the Burke High School Foundation, she has been working with student leaders in a Saturday college-preparation program with Trident Technical College's Palmer campus.
Lecque, who is also a commissioner with the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, has watched the school board with interest, and she was baffled when she heard incumbent Rev. Chris Collins announce, "I didn't know we had a dysfunctional board."
"What school board is he on?" Lecque says. On the board, Lecque says she would use creative problem-solving and do her research to prepare for meetings. She says it is important for board members to "talk about educating children, not just the ideology of 'Oh, I hate the superintendent, I'm not going to work with her.'"
Lecque wants to bring a focus on early-childhood education to the board. If children don't learn to read early on, she says, "They're going to wear out because of the embarrassment of not being able to keep up." She thinks that teacher evaluation is important, but she does not think student performance on standardized tests should be a part of the metric. "I have a problem with children just learning to take tests," Lecque says. "There's no innovation in that ... That doesn't make you a learned person. That doesn't make you an innovative person." She also says teachers should be chosen with an eye to matching the student population. "You need to fit your school culturally and demographically with the kind of teachers that can relate to the students they are teaching," she says.
Lecque is a proponent of charter schools, and she thinks the regular schools could learn a thing or two about parent involvement from places like Meeting Street Academy, where parents are required to volunteer. "The thing I like about [charter schools] is they're owned by parents, they're owned by the principals, and they kind of manage everything," Lecque says. "Accountability is there. And we should be able to model that same kind of concept in our regular schools."