Charleston County voters can cast their ballot for all six open seats, regardless of where they live. Two seats are up for grabs in West Ashley.
Like fellow West Ashley candidate Jim Ramich, John Barter comes from an impressive business background, having spent 25 years at AlliedSignal, the company now known as Honeywell. Barter started as a financial analyst and then worked for six years as chief financial officer, plus three years as president of the company's $6-million-a-year automotive products sector. Barter also served for 15 years on the board at his alma mater, Springhill College, spending part of that time as chairman of the finance committee.
In short, Barter knows finance. So when Charleston County school board member Elizabeth Moffly started batting around the idea of auditing the school district to look for inefficiencies, his ears perked up. Barter sat in on a workshop where the board invited representatives from three auditing firms to talk about what they could offer, and he walked away concerned about a lack of focus. "They had no written statement of what they want the audit to accomplish, so they were really inviting these people in to say, 'Please, come tell me what we should be doing.' These are folks who are going to charge you on average $150 an hour, and the board hasn't even decided yet what they want to accomplish."
He's also concerned about the motive behind the audit in the first place. "Are we trying to do a forensic audit so that we can point the finger at you and say, 'You didn't do well'?" Barter says. "That's not good human relations. That's not the way you run organizations."
Barter retired 14 years ago and moved to Kiawah Island, and since then he's gotten involved with the Charleston Education Network and Charleston Promise Neighborhood. The Charleston County School District is an enterprise with a budget well over half a billion dollars, but Barter sees the people, specifically teachers and principals, as its most important asset. "If you want to take good care of customers, take good care of employees," he says — and that means fighting to maintain teachers' annual salary increases whenever possible.
The district is far from perfect, he says. Superintendent McGinley could use more constructive criticism from the board, struggling schools need incentives to attract excellent teachers, and the district needs to formulate better benchmarks for teacher and student performance. But Barter says a strong board can change those things. "Great organizations embrace their imperfections, and they work on them every day," he says.
Henry Copeland is the only current school board candidate who has ever been banned from school district property. In January 2011, school district attorney John Emerson wrote Copeland a letter putting the former District 20 constituent board member on warning.
"You have disrupted public meetings and dominated the floor, refusing to yield when asked to do so," Emerson wrote, according to reports from the Post and Courier. "We are now on official notice from employees that you have made them physically afraid."
If you ask Copeland about it, he'll calmly tell you that it was a matter of the board abusing its executive sessions to hide their dealings. "I had access to some information that was made public by one of the board members," Copeland says. "There was nothing confidential about the information because of the way it was received and the way it was disseminated."
The ban has since been lifted, and Copeland has kept a relatively low profile ever since. But now that he's running for the school board, he's airing his grievances, which go all the way back to the 1960s. Growing up in a recently integrated Charleston school system, he says he saw district leadership making questionable funding decisions. "The thing we didn't realize is, to make the county equitable, unfortunately it was decided to, shall we say, undercut the schools that were successful in order to make everything average," Copeland says.
Copeland, who has two children at the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science and another at Goodwin Elementary School, has plenty of modern complaints as well. He takes issue with the fact that vacancies exist at Burke Middle High School and the sought-after Academic Magnet High School (and he also thinks the district had a "tin ear" when it named those two schools). He thinks Vision 2016 is too vague to be useful. And he blames the school board's recent dysfunction on a lack of strong leadership from former chairman Chris Fraser.
From 1993 through 1997, Copeland was mayor of the tiny South Carolina town of Ehrhardt, where he says he was able to broker peace in a conflict over where to place a new sewer line. He says he went to the family of a former mayor and talked in person about the plans, eventually reaching a solution that satisfied all of the parties in a town with a population of hundreds. "We had somebody who could very easily have been an opponent become an asset," Copeland says.
When journalists write about a school, they often try to find a parent or other community member who's plugged in and can talk about the day-to-day life of the school. When the media spotlight turned to the perennially struggling North Charleston High School last year after the district hired a controversial new principal, Michael Miller became the go-to source.
Miller isn't a high school parent, a teacher, or even an education expert. He owns a barbershop. But since the mid-1990s, he has volunteered as a mentor and soccer coach at schools including Stono Park Elementary School, Burke High School, and NCHS. He currently serves on two PTAs and two School Improvement Councils, and he helped start the Sam Williams Foundation to provide school supplies to underprivileged children and Title I schools.
"Even if I didn't have a daughter, I would still be as involved as I am now," says Miller, who now has a child of his own enrolled at Charleston Developmental Academy. Having volunteered at multiple levels in the school system, he says the root problem behind the dismal graduation rates at schools like NCHS is that schools are promoting students through the younger grades without actually bringing them up to grade level. "If they're not achieving at grade level, to promote them would be wrong on the district's part, and it will hurt the students in the long run," Miller says.
Miller applauds the district for formulating its Vision 2016 plan, but he says it still has shortcomings when it comes to grade-level achievement standards. And for the lower-performing students, he says the district could do a better job of providing practical workforce training.
He calls the state of discussions on the school board "embarrassing" and says it might be worthwhile for the district to enlist the help of a volunteer expert in Robert's Rules of Order to keep meetings on track. He also thinks it would work wonders for the board if they spent as much time with students as he does. "I guarantee you this: I spend more time visiting schools than all board members put together," Miller says.
Lately, the school board has been the inspiration for plenty of armchair quarterbacks. Jim Ramich was one of them, and with good reason: As a retired executive vice president at Corning, he has sat on some world-class corporate boards — including Samsung and Siecor Fiber Optics — and has seen how things are supposed to work.
"They focus on minutiae, and some of the things they talk about are ridiculous," Ramich says of the school board. Example: At a September board meeting, board member Elizabeth Moffly dwelled on the topic of school resource officers, saying they were overstepping their constitutional bounds when questioning students. In the first case, Ramich says, nobody on the board is an arbiter of constitutional law. In the second case, then-board Chairman Chris Fraser could have cut the 45-minute headache short with a simple intervention: "The right answer was 'We're going to refer this to counsel, and he's going to tell us his research and his recommendation at the next meeting.' Three minutes, done."
Of course, it's not always that simple to put the kibosh on a Kandrac-Moffly-Collins rabbit hole. The board needs a majority vote to shut down a fruitless discussion. "If we don't get good, rational people in those six seats, I think we're going to continue to have a problem," Ramich says.
Ramich also knows a few things about setting goals on a board, and while he likes the basic idea of Vision 2016, he thinks the plan for a sudden spike in performance is unrealistic and the long list of objectives is unfocused. At the Medical University of South Carolina, where Ramich recently served as chairman of the heart hospital, he says he started out on the board with a discussion of concrete goals. "First of all, I said, 'What's your vision?' They said, 'Well, we want to be one of best heart hospitals in the Southeast.' I said, 'Well, how do you measure that?'" The board was interested in being named one of the top heart hospitals in the Southeast, but Ramich set a more ambitious goal: making it on U.S. News and World Report's list of top 50 heart hospitals in the country. The board set the bar, and the hospital rose to it.
On the school board, Ramich says he would push for differential salaries for teachers based on evaluation and performance. Low-performing teachers shouldn't get raises, he says, and "if they continue to not perform, I think they should be encouraged to go into another profession."
Brian Thomas joined the school board in January, when he was appointed by legislative delegation to fill a vacant seat left by Mary Ann Taylor. In his first 10 months on the board, he points to one major achievement: "I think the most successful thing I've been able to do is stay above the disruption and the fracture," Thomas says.
Indeed, Thomas is not one to take the bait at board meetings. He remembers one of his first newspaper interviews, when a reporter asked which side of the board's majority-vs.-minority debates he would take. His response? "I told her I would not be on either side. I would be in the middle, and I would make the decisions I thought were best for the students, parents, and teachers. I feel like I've been able to do that, and I've not been caught up in that sideshow."
Thomas says he sees the current election as "a chance to change the culture on our school board." When it comes to changing the culture of the district itself, he says part of the answer will be to learn from the example of charter schools. Orange Grove Elementary School, for example, serves a diverse student body and has successfully closed the achievement gap. He's not sure what the secret sauce is, but he says the district should be phasing out its literacy academy programs and shifting to solutions gleaned from the charter schools. "I think [the literacy academy program] is a great plan to get us back on track, but I don't want it to be our long-term plan," Thomas says.
Speaking of long-term plans, Thomas abstained from the vote to approve Vision 2016, reasoning that it was too vague for him to weigh in on. He is also on the record as not being a fan of teachers' automatic annual salary increases, but he says he recognizes that's the system in place, and he says teacher salaries should be "the last thing on the chopping block" in the future.