Charleston County voters can cast their ballot for all six open seats, regardless of where they live. Two seats are up for grabs in Downtown.
Jo Cannon ought to know a thing or two about running a meeting: Her husband wrote a book on the topic. The late Hugh Cannon, a former member of the school board, was the author of Cannon’s Concise Guide to Rules of Order.
“The whole thing with this is about having goodwill, getting along, majority rules,” Jo Cannon says, her hand on a copy of the book. Watching the way the school board operated this year, she found the whole process a little bit disgraceful. “It’s like people are just doing it out of spite, out of meanness,” Cannon says of certain board members (she’s much too polite to name names). “It has nothing to do with the education of our children.”
Cannon doesn’t have children of her own, but she worked with hundreds of them every year at Rivers Middle School during her 17-year career as a school librarian. It was there that she first saw the district’s achievement gap firsthand when a student asked for help using an encyclopedia. When the student asked Cannon where she was supposed to start copying, Cannon realized the student could not read. On the school board, she says she would advocate for immediate, personalized intervention every time a student falls behind grade level in reading, starting in pre-K.
She is also one of two candidates, along with North Charleston candidate Tom Ducker, supports zero-based budgeting. “I think for everything a case should be made every year,” Cannon says. She says teacher bonuses should be a part of that budgeting process, and teachers should be evaluated both by principals and by consultants from the district.
After retiring as a librarian, Cannon opened up a bead shop on Cannon Street. Recently, she and the other current downtown candidates attempted to fill the vacancy left on the board by Toya Hampton-Green, a position that was ultimately won by Todd Garrett.
The Last Action Hero
How’s this for a life story? After getting expelled from his Upstate high school, Todd Garrett buckled down, graduated third in his class at the Citadel in 1998, earned a masters in public policy at Harvard, served two tours with the Marine Corps as a platoon commander in Iraq, and then moved his family to Charleston, where he works in industrial real estate. And in between his time at the Citadel and Harvard, he lived in Peru and started a nonprofit organization to provide microloans to Peruvian businesswomen.
In Charleston, Garrett’s daughters got into the magnet St. Andrew’s School of Math and Science, but Garrett says he found himself “surrounded by failing schools” downtown. So what’s wrong with the schools? Garrett says the district is wrong to look at performance gaps in terms of race, as it does in its Vision 2016 strategic plan, setting more aggressive improvement goals for minority students. “Really, the problem that we’ve got in education is socioeconomics,” Garrett says. “The poor kids are the ones who are lagging behind, whether they’re white, black, or Latino.”
Garrett’s solution starts with a change in focus for the school board, which he says has gotten bogged down in day-to-day concerns best left to the superintendent. “The main thing the board needs to do is set goals, chart a path to meet those, and then supervise the execution of those,” Garrett says. “It’s not our job to be in the weeds picking principals or teachers.”
Garrett is barely an incumbent in the race, having recently been chosen by the Charleston County legislative delegation to fill the school board seat vacated by Toya Hampton-Green in August. He hasn’t had much of an opportunity to prove himself — his first board meeting was just two weeks ago — but he says his experience negotiating real estate deals gives him the skills needed to bring about consensus on the fractured board. “I think you identify what everybody’s goals are, what’s important to you and what’s not, and then get them to move beyond the issues that are not important,” Garrett says.
If you want a loud voice on the school board, you can’t go wrong with Tony Lewis. Not only is he direct and outspoken with his opinions, but he speaks in a commanding tone that would put a drill sergeant to shame.
Currently a member of the downtown District 20 constituent board, Lewis says he was one of the voices calling for teachers’ annual salary increases to be restored this year. In a meeting with district Chief Financial Officer Michael Bobby, he says the conversation went like this: “I told them, ‘[Teachers] are much more important to me than y’all, because y’all are nothing but a bunch of paper-pushers making a lot of money’ … I told them just like that. I don’t sugarcoat it.”
Lewis says the remedy for the district’s struggling schools is to hire “grassroots teachers” who “know the culture of a kid before [they] condemn them and always put a stigmatition on them.” He recalls a recent carnival event at Sanders-Clyde Elementary School where he spoke up when he overheard a white teacher making a comment to another teacher about the students’ “chocolate” parents. “Suppose a kid heard that?” Lewis says.
For another thing, Lewis says he wants teachers to lead students in prayer. “We need to go back and put prayer back in these schools, because prayer will keep all those demons out,” Lewis says. “You’ve got a lot of demons, a lot of negative energy coming through this door, but when you pray, you keep that out of there.” He also wants to create a group called the Student Body for a Better School System, a delegation of high school seniors who share their opinions with the district.
Lewis has a grandson enrolled at Charleston Development Academy, and he is involved with organizations including Operation Cool Breeze, Toys for Tots, and Elks of the World. He is also the founder of Save the Youth, which takes students on field trips and to see sporting events, and he has long been involved with the Charleston Hawks semi-professional football team.
The Straight Shooter
Born in Canada, Bruce Smith attended Harvard and earned an MBA from Stanford, followed by 15 years working on Wall Street. He relocated to Charleston 20 years ago while working for Lehman Brothers and went into semi-retirement after the birth of his daughter, who now attends Buist Academy. He is a founding board member at the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science.
He sees his out-of-state pedigree as a selling point. “I’m beholden to no one,” he says. “I’ve never antagonized anybody, and I’ve never gotten leaned on by anybody, except for boards and charities. I don’t owe any of my success to anybody who might be politically motivated in the South Carolina area.” Smith draws a contrast in this respect between himself and the “cadre of people here who do self-serve each other,” specifically the candidates endorsed by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce: Todd Garrett, John Barter, Jim Ramich, and Mattese Miller Lecque. Their agenda? “To support [District Superintendent] Nancy McGinley and to allow the system to wallow in its own muck.”
One problem Smith sees with downtown schools is that they are “reverse-segregated,” with very few white students in majority-black schools. He says he got involved with the Charter School for Math and Science when he saw other downtown parents looking for alternatives to neighborhood schools and pricey private schools like Porter-Gaud. He says he’s in favor of school choice on the district level, or at least encouraging new charter schools. “The school board decided to outsource the porters in public schools. Why can’t they outsource some of the failing schools?” Smith says. “If they admit they can’t do it as well as somebody else, maybe they should allow some alternatives, i.e. allowing funds to follow a child to attend a private school or a religious school.”
Smith calls the district’s Vision 2016 strategic plan a lot of “mumbo-jumbo” and “Educanese,” and he says the district should remove poor-performing students from the classroom immediately to catch them up, especially on literacy. “This other bloc of children that can’t perform up to standards, they shouldn’t be in the same classroom. It’s a huge distraction,” Smith says.
When former Chairman Chris Fraser got frustrated with an argument that was going nowhere and walked out of a recent school board meeting, Louis Weinstein had already left his seat in the audience 15 minutes ago. He’d seen this sort of fighting before when he served four years as president of a school board in Toledo, Ohio.
“When I started, we had a dysfunctional school board, somewhat similar to what’s occurring here,” Weinstein says. “Citizens didn’t understand what was going on because all they saw was infighting.” Sound familiar?
Early in his tenure as president (equivalent to a chairman), Weinstein laid down some ground rules: Meetings would have strict agendas, time limits would be placed on discussions, and communication with the public would be totally transparent. On the board in Ohio, Weinstein also takes credit for helping to pass a $52 million levy to build new schools and stop an overcrowding problem, not unlike what he sees at Wando High School. Today, his grandchildren attend public schools in Toledo.
“I think we first of all developed respect for each other,” Weinstein says. He doesn’t see that sort of respect on the Charleston County school board yet, and he certainly doesn’t see a respect for people’s time at board meetings, which all too often have devolved into three-hour verbal slugfests.
Weinstein favors a new evaluation system for teachers that takes into account standardized test scores as 10 to 20 percent of a teacher’s grade but also relies heavily on peer evaluations. When age-appropriate, he says students should be allowed to evaluate teachers as well.
He also says he would strengthen the district’s technical education programs and work to get more community members involved in schools. His wife recently started mentoring a third-grader at Sanders-Clyde Elementary School, and he sees the potential for more senior citizens to help out.
In addition to his previous school board experience, Weinstein has taught medical students and served as the chairman of the OB-GYN department at the Medical College of Ohio. In the Charleston area, he is a volunteer gynecologist for the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic and a docent for Preservation Society home tours.