In a city where letters to the editor and lunchtime gossip so frequently revolve around education, the dismal showing — approximately 20 citizens — for the first county school board candidates’ forum didn’t correspond with how much Charlestonians love to complain. Eight of the 20 candidates who filed to run for seats on Charleston County’s School Board attended the event last Thurs., which was held in the North Charleston City Hall and sponsored by the Charleston County Chapter of the South Carolina Coalition for Black Voter Participation. Each of the candidates — Doug Berger (City of Charleston), Jo Anne Cannon (City of Charleston), Ruth Jordan (West Ashley), Gregg Meyers (East Cooper), Arthur Ravenel Jr. (East Cooper), Leroy Seabrook (West Ashley), Ray Toler (North Area), and Ann Oplinger (West Ashley) — gave two-minute introductory statements and then answered a series of questions about everything from possibly abolishing constituent boards to combating teacher shortages and drop-out rates to where each stands on their support for Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and her Plan for Excellence.

No candidate spoke in favor of completely abolishing the eight constituent boards, despite repeated emphasis on the need to repair the “disconnect” between them and the larger county board. Ravenel and Toler were the only members present of the Accountability “A” Team, which is running as a five-person package (no sign of Sandi Engelman, Robin Beard, or Lurline Fishburne). All eight candidates more or less agreed that burdensome red tape needs to be stripped from the hiring process if the county wants to attract quality instructors who stay around long enough to make a difference. To fix alarming drop-out rates, Seabrook proposed more career fairs and focused middle school programs, and Berger, Ravenel, and Oplinger each pointed out how strengthening vocational programs could help. All the candidates favored ambitious building programs, while support for charter schools proved more divisive, with Seabrook and Jordan opposed, Oplinger, Toler, Cannon, and Ravenel supporting the idea, and Berger and Meyers somewhere in the middle and calling for greater scrutiny of the charter document and academic performances.

As for critiques of Goodloe-Johnson and her progress so far, no one spoke ill about the superintendent. But both Toler and Ravenel said the plan’s implementation was flawed and hadn’t yielded improvements quickly enough. Berger, who said he supports the “nuts and bolts” of the plan, called for more communication and transparency between the administration and groups such as constituent boards and parents. Meyers, Seabrook, Oplinger, Cannon, and Jordan all applauded the plan, and Cannon, a former librarian at Rivers Middle School, reminded the audience that the county’s current weaknesses were not new. Meyers, who has held the East Cooper seat since 1996, pointed out that this election should not be a referendum on Goodloe-Johnson as an individual but an assessment of her plan, which addresses what the current board wanted it to — make improving low-performing schools the top priority.

The moderators didn’t skirt around the widening gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” either, terms used verbatim in a question regarding disparities among schools in the district. As for achieving equity, arguably the district’s greatest hurdle, Berger echoed a statement from his campaign, for which he gained more than 800 signatures in 48 hours before the filing deadline: “Instead of having a few excellent schools and so many low-performing schools, why don’t we just work toward a lot of good schools?”

Thurs. Aug. 31 at 7 p.m.
Main Library, 68 Calhoun St., Charleston

Tues. Sept. 12 at 7 p.m.
St. James Santee Elementary School,
8900 Hwy. 17 North, McClellanville

Tues. Sept. 26 at 7 p.m.
Mt. Pleasant Town Hall,
100 Ann Edwards Lane, Mt. Pleasant

Here are some excerpts from last Thursday’s forum gathered by Lynsy Smithson Stanley

What: Charleston County School Board Candidates’ Forum

When: Aug. 3, 2006 7 p.m.

Where: North Charleston City Hall

Who: Eight candidates attended the event, which was sponsored by the Charleston County Chapter of the South Carolina Coalition for Black Voter Participation. Chapter president Anthony Vandross (not sure on spelling) spoke and Marion Welch moderated.

There was a timekeeper and a designated question lady, too.

Welch explained that all of the candidates were contacted. Except for three still waiting for certification of signatures on their petitions, and one “pending” verification, those not present had prior obligations. Welch added that there has been some confusion regarding what seats are open for the election and reminded the audience that two seats are open for East Cooper, one for the city of Charleston, one for West Ashley, and one for the North Area. Regardless of where they live, constituents vote for representatives in each region.

Each candidate gave a two-minute opening statement and then had one minute to respond to each question. Who got to answer first rotated with every question.

Doug Berger (City of Charleston) ·

Berger decided last-minute to run and gathered 829 signatures in 48 hours. As one of only two large-animal vets for 10 years, he pointed out that he got to visit a variety (suburban, rural, and urban) of families, all of whom love to talk about education. Has a Ph.D. in zoology and now runs a small-animal clinic downtown. Berger’s older daughter goes to Buist Academy (the academic magnet school downtown), but his youngest did not get in. They still don’t know where she is going to go. Berger’s talking points revolved around equity and the need for greater communication between the administration and its ancillary bodies, especially parents and community.

Jo Anne Cannon (City of Charleston) ·

She was the librarian at Rivers Middle School when it was a blue-ribbon institution. She says she saw things go awry. “This is my neighborhood. I just think I can make a difference.”

Ruth Jordan (West Ashley) ·

“Public education is a basic social good. We must invest in our children and put them first.” Jordan is a product of CC public schools. Her kids graduated from Middleton High School. She is a realtor for Prudential. “The crisis in public education is intensifying.” Jordan said she supports the Plan for Excellence.

Gregg Meyers ·

Meyers has been on the CC school board since 1996. He worked as a lawyer and helped with the growth of magnet schools. Meyers said since the time he started, he has focused on the board’s decision-making process itself, which he said used to work on a crisis-to-crisis system. “We charged Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson to improve low-performing schools without taking away from the average ones.” Meyers says that movement in a positive direction is clear.

Arthur Ravenel Jr. ·

This is his 23rd contested political race. “We will no longer accept excuses and failure is no longer acceptable.” Ravenel says the current system has failed to rectify and address problems in the district.

Leroy Seabrook ·

Seabrook is a product of CC schools. He spent 24 years in the military, worked as an administrator for The Citadel, and served on the District 23 Constituent Board. “I’m primarily for the kids and the growth of the school district to ensure that every kid gets a quality education that is tailored for their needs. The infrastructure is in place. We need to just follow through with the proper focus. We need to treat education as an investment, and as we know, investment doesn’t make its returns right away.”

Ann Oplinger ·

Oplinger comes from a family of educators. Her kids graduated from CC schools. She is a former teacher, assistant principal, and was a principal at Memminger Elementary. She says she has a unique perspective because of her experience with the diversity within the county. “Strong schools are schools that have strong faculty and consistent principals.”

Ray Toler ·

Toler is a product of public schools. His wife is a retired teacher and worked for the school district for 23 years. “We need to give our schools back to our kids and our teachers.” Toler said he is working for equality for the district’s employees: “If you have happy employees, you have good schools.”

1. How do you perceive the function of the constituent boards? Have they served their purpose, or should they be abolished?

Berger: There is a disconnect, Berger said, between the constituent boards and the county board. Berger commented on the media’s coverage of this disconnect, and voiced the need for greater communication between the two bodies.

Cannon: The constituent board, she said, is a link between what is going on in the schools and the big board. Cannon did not indicate that they needed to be abolished.

Jordan: Jordan said the set-up is working in some areas and not in others. She did not indicate that they need to be abolished.

Meyers: Meyers pointed out that abolishing them is a question for the state, not the county board. He briefed the audience about the history of the constituent boards, which were created to appease parties resisting the 1967 Act of Consolidation, at the time the longest filibuster in the state’s history. Meyers said the county board needs to engage more productively with the constituent boards.

Ravenel: He said that if they could get along amicably, he thinks they could function effectively. “It’s a shame that they have not been able to get along.”

Seabrook: Seabrook pointed out that the geography of the district lends itself to various interests throughout the county. The problems, he said, seem to occur in the dynamic between the two. Seabrook said he is for keeping constituent boards but making their relationship with the county board work.

Oplinger: The constituent boards, she said, are an opportunity for people to express themselves. “The constituent boards are a vehicle for people to be engaged. They should not be adversarial.” She said the boards are valuable because they express the unique needs of individual communities.

Toler: “The constituent boards have not been dealt with fairly.” The two bodies working together, Toler said, would improve the overall quality of the district.

2. How would you address the teacher shortage?

Jordan: Jordan said she has spoken with teachers in the district, and that the district is not accessible, meaning that the hiring process is too long and drawn out. The process needs to be streamlined.

Meyers: Meyers compared the CC system to a “minor league farm team,” meaning that young teachers typically leave after a few years for nearby districts.

Ravenel: He pointed out that none of the district’s problems come from a lack of funding. “This district is awash in money.” He said that fixing the problems starts with getting control of the classrooms. “If you’re wanting to be a teacher, you don’t want to come into a classroom where you life and limbs are in danger.”

3. What solutions do you bring to the board to prevent the drop-out rate?

Oplinger: She suggested more ninth grade academies.

Meyers: Meyers pointed out that the district loses students at every transition, and that the district needs to track each student more closely to monitor who is at risk and address those issues as early as possible. Meyers said that to presume every child can be educated in the same way is erroneous. “We let children fall through the cracks, and that was acceptable. It no longer is.”

Seabrook: Seabrook pointed out that the drop-out rate in Charleston County is comparable to other areas of the state and nation. He suggested more focused curriculum during middle school and then broaden out at high school. He also said he would like to see more career fairs.

Oplinger: Oplinger said she is weary of what she calls “mega high schools,” and would like to see a greater emphasis on vo-tech support.

Berger: Berger said he supports increasing the availability of vo-tech programs.

4. Do you support ambitious building programs?

All eight said they were in favor of ambitious building programs.

5. The gap is widening between the haves and the have-nots. What ideas do you bring to the board for tackling these problems?

Oplinger: Equity, she said, has to do with providing the resources to those children who needs them. She said all of the county’s schools need to be up to par with magnet schools.

Berger: He said the point system allotment (the state’s way of determining what schools get certain resources) needs to be reevaluated to distribute resources more evenly.

Cannon: Everyone, Cannon said, needs to go to his or her school board representative and ask him or her: “Which schools have you been in? What did you go there? What was the visit about?”

6. Do you support Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson’s Plan for Excellence and if you don’t, why not?

Seabrook: Seabrook said he supports the plan and emphasized that the infrastructure is in place to continue improving the schools and that the board needs to stick with Dr. Goodloe-Johnson.

Oplinger: She said she supports the curriculum in place now, and that “we need to work that plan like we’ve never worked it before.” She added that it needs more time to achieve its original goals.

Toler: Toler said he supports the idea of having a plan, and that this plan has good parts, but that it has not been applied in a way that produced results quickly enough.

Berger: “I support the nuts and bolts of the plan.” Berger pointed out a broad need for equality in the education system across the county.

Cannon: She said she supports Goodloe-Johnson and the plan. Cannon emphasized that none of the district’s problems are new. As for Goodloe-Johnson, Cannon pointed out, “She inherited a bear’s nest.”

Jordan: She said she supports the plan. “Once we made a decision, we need to support that plan.”

Meyers: He said he supports the plan. He also said the single most significant factor in assessing this plan is the feedback regarding students’ progress during the year. Meyers emphasized the data-driven character of the plan, which makes it unique for the district and demands regular evaluation via regular testing. Meyers repeatedly pointed to the county’s tendency to shuffle leaders in and out and commented on the need for continuity in leadership — a novel idea for the district, he said.

8. Do you support charter schools, and what type of impact do you think charter schools have on the district’s budget?

Oplinger: Oplinger said she is in favor of charter schools, but that she is not informed enough to comment on their financial impact.

Toler: Toler said he is in favor of charter schools, and that he is unaware of any financial impact.

Berger: Berger said charter schools reflect parents’ frustration with current programs. He cited projects going on in Boston that have played with the general charter idea but fused it more with the school board, too.

Cannon: Cannon said she is in favor of whatever it takes to get quality education to the children. “If charter schools are the answer, then they are the answer.”

Jordan: Jordan said she is against anything that drains money from the district and includes charter schools on that list.

Meyers: Meyers said while he is neither for nor against charter schools, that the process and charters needs to be scrutinized more thoroughly by the school board. He also said the financial impact of charter schools — $10 million dollars — was well-documented and significant.

Ravenel: Charter schools, Ravenel said, are an uplifting environment to visit. He said he is heavily in favor of them. “It is the way every school should be.”

Seabrook: Seabrook is not in favor of charter schools.

9. How would you rate Dr. Goodloe-Johnson’s performance, and would you support her continuing as superintendent?

Jordan: “I had not thought of getting rid of her.”

Berger: “I don’t have any reason not to support her.” Part of improving the school district, he said, is contingent on her getting a chance to apply her plan.

Cannon: “I have no reason to think she isn’t doing a good job.”

Jordan: Jordan said the superintendent so far has offered an outstanding performance.

Meyers: Meyers said he has been a supporter of the superintendent, but it has nothing to do with her personally. Meyers said the school board asked her when she accepted the position to give improving low-performing schools a priority. “I think we’re getting that from Dr. Goodloe-Johnson. What we need to get away from is making this personal. It isn’t.” Meyers said the question that has defined the past — “do you like her [the superintendent]?” needs to be dismissed.

Ravenel: Ravenel said that firing superintendent Goodloe-Johson has never been discussed.

Seabrook: He said he supports the superintendent.

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