The good news came on Nov. 14, shortly after Nancy McGinley had been removed as superintendent of the Charleston County School District. In an event that was equal parts press conference and pep rally, the Burke High School Marching Bulldogs shook the halls of the district office building and district leaders led students in a chant: "C-C-S-D! C-C-S-D!"
For the first time in its history, the district had received an absolute rating of Excellent on its state report card. It was a marked improvement from the Below Average rating it received when McGinley took over as superintendent in 2007, and interim Superintendent Michael Bobby was quick to give credit to his predecessor.
"Her passion and visionary leadership is the foundation upon which we built what we have today," Bobby said.
Bobby's brief tribute was hardly a universal sentiment. Depending on who you ask, McGinley was either a saint, a despot, or a victim of a coup. The decision to accept McGinley's resignation was discussed behind closed doors, but an attorney representing McGinley has said that the district's Board of Trustees gave her an ultimatum: Resign or be fired.
McGinley's dismissal came after a year of heated school board meetings where the board sometimes split 5-4 on important decisions. Teachers raised objections to a pay-for-performance teacher salary plan that the former superintendent favored, and parents from Academic Magnet High School railed against her dismissal of a popular football coach over a post-game celebration that some deemed racially insensitive.
Now, a group of community leaders, parents, and district employees led by Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. is going to bat for the ousted superintendent, asking the board to reverse its 8-1 decision and re-hire McGinley to the appointed post.
Should they? Let's look at her track record.
Among the chorus singing McGinley's praises at a school board meeting last week was Rachel Amy, a parent and retired CCSD teacher and administrator. She called the board's decision to release McGinley "a travesty."
"She had a plan, she was implementing it, she was checking it and moving on and moving forward," Amy said. "She didn't get an opportunity to complete it."
This is debatable. In fact, the district is nowhere near achieving the goals from one of McGinley's highest-profile plans, called Charleston Achieving Excellence: Vision 2016. One of the program's priorities was to raise the district success rate on the standardized PASS test's third-grade English/Language Arts test from a starting point of 80 percent in 2011 to a goal of 98 percent in 2016. As of 2014, three years into the program, the success rate had risen just one percentage point to 81 percent.
Patrick Hayes, a fifth-grade teacher at Drayton Hall Elementary and founder of the advocacy group EdFirstSC, says McGinley dropped the Vision 2016 goals in district teachers' laps without much in the way of assistance or instructions. "It's a management philosophy I've never understood," Hayes says, adding that the goals were "the subject of open derision" among some teachers.
But by other measures, the district made big strides during the McGinley years. Students' passing rates for end-of-course tests increased overall, from 65 percent in 2007 to 83 percent in 2014. The district has begun to close performance gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines (as measured by EOC pass rates for students receiving subsidized meals), but those gaps remain bigger in Charleston County than in districts statewide. For example, Charleston County's gap in the EOC pass rate for white and African-American students is 26 percentage points, compared to an average gap of 19 percentage points in districts statewide.
The district has also upped its graduation rate and narrowed its graduation-rate gap along racial lines, but again, the racial achievement gap remains significantly larger in Charleston County than it is statewide. CCSD has a 17-percentage-point gap in graduation rates between white and black students, compared to just a 4-percent gap statewide.
One boast that McGinley made on the most recent district report card is that the district had reduced its number of schools ranked At-Risk from 22 in 2007 (when the ranking was called Unsatisfactory) to just four in 2014. While this is true, critics have been quick to point out that the district partly accomplished the feat by closing unsuccessful schools during tight budget years and shuffling the students into other schools. Since 2007, the district has either closed or renamed 10 schools that were ranked Unsatisfactory or Below Average in 2007, sometimes over protests from parents who lamented the loss of historic majority-black schools.
The district has made some other important strides since 2007. Out-of-school suspensions are down. Enrollment is up, although it has stayed static as a proportion of county population. Following a concerted push by McGinley and some board members, the district has added 15 new magnet or partial-magnet schools since 2007. And in one of the less-trumpeted statistics from the district report card, enrollment in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs skyrocketed from 17 percent in 2007 to 41 percent in 2014.
Whatever the district's successes may have been in the past seven years, McGinley made a few enemies along the way. While many teachers came out to voice their support for McGinley at last week's board meeting — more teachers, in fact, than came out to ask for an increase in their own salaries — the ex-superintendent's approval rating is mixed. According to the Charleston Teacher Alliance, 66 percent of teachers surveyed in 2013 said that McGinley was an effective leader, down from 73 percent in 2009. Only 45 percent of teachers said that McGinley sought teacher input.
McGinley butted heads with some school board members over the years as well. At least once, after a poorly attended five-hour board workshop in 2013, McGinley sent a letter to board members scolding them for wasting her time.
Since founding EdFirstSC, Hayes has spoken at numerous board meetings, often on the topic of broken promises in regard to teacher salaries. Hayes isn't an out-and-out McGinley basher — he says her push for literacy interventions has made a visible difference in elementary schools — but he says he saw resentment toward McGinley growing on the school board over the years.
"It always felt like if you were willing to just accept what you were told and go along with the program, she was willing to blow smoke at you and make you feel like it was a collegial relationship," Hayes says. "Anybody who tried to ask critical questions — never mind oppose a position, but just dig into things — you could tell she had kind of a steely reaction to that."
McGinley also ruffled feathers on some constituent school boards, holdover elected bodies from the years before state government consolidated Charleston County schools into a single district. Shortly after the Board of Trustees voted to accept McGinley's resignation, the constituent board for District 1 voted pre-emptively to oppose any efforts to reinstate her. District 1 encompasses McClellanville, Awendaw, and the outer reaches of Mt. Pleasant, and it is home to Lincoln High School, a building that some parents say has been in need of repair or replacement since after Hurricane Hugo damaged it in 1989.
The Board of Trustees voted at the last minute to add a new Lincoln High School to the wish list for a one-cent sales tax referendum this November, but Joe Bowers, a member of the District 1 Constituent Board, isn't holding his breath. "We've had this fight back and forth: They're going to build us a new school, they aren't, they are, they aren't," Bowers says. "We just keep getting tugged around."
To Bowers, the lack of action on replacing Lincoln High is symptomatic of the McGinley years — years in which he says the district consolidated power at its 75 Calhoun St. headquarters and stripped constituent boards of their power. But in the end, he says, the tides turned against McGinley.
"She had always had her five votes in her pocket for the longest time. I think it speaks volumes that you had an 8-1 vote to accept her resignation," Bowers says.
McGinley was the district's longest-serving superintendent, outlasting all nine school board members from 2007. The school board has yet to place a vote for reinstatement on a meeting agenda, so for the time being, any talk of bringing her back is purely hypothetical.
Currently, the board and their former superintendent find themselves at an impasse. Board Chair Cindy Bohn Coats has said that McGinley and her attorney would have to be the ones to initiate any conversation about reinstatement. But McGinley's attorney, Nancy Bloodgood, has said that the board would have to reach out to her first. Asked last week if McGinley would consider returning to her post, Bloodgood said, "It would depend on how they would propose that things would change there, because this is the board that required her to resign. I can't answer that question unless I would know a little bit more about who's asking and what they're interested in, and we've had none of those conversations yet."
We did some more number-crunching on the McGinley era. Click here to see some more charts and to look at the data yourself.