Charleston schools losing leaders in November

Four members decide against another term

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When school board members speak of the Goodloe-Johnson administration next year, they likely won't be speaking from experience.

Four members who were a part of that era are retiring this November: former Congressman Arthur Ravenel, longtime member Gregg Meyers, and the two current board leaders, Ruth Jordan and Ray Toler.

Voters already elected four fresh faces in 2008. When the new batch of members are chosen in November, only one person on the board will have served longer than two years: downtown's Toya Hampton Green.

The board has often looked to Meyers for his institutional knowledge during discussions, most recently on an effort to reshape the district's policy on sex education.

But the board will lose more than his experience; it will no longer have his skills at compromise, says John Butzon, director of the Charleston Education Network, a nonprofit advocate for improved public education.

"His inclination was that we can work it out and come to an agreement," Butzon says of Meyers.

In 2006, Ravenel arrived with a bang. After a lifetime in public service as a state legislator and congressman, he set his sights on reshaping the Charleston County School Board in his retirement years.

With an "A-Team" of five members, Ravenel's plan was to lead a conservative movement on the board that would target Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and her blueprint for progress, the Plan for Excellence. In the end, A-Team infighting led to more headlines than votes. Only Ravenel and Toler won seats on the board, leaving Ravenel in a clear minority.

Goodloe-Johnson would eventually leave for a bigger opportunity leading Seattle's schools, but Ravenel would continue to stir trouble for the new superintendent, Nancy McGinley. In 2008, Ravenel got a lot of press for a hissyfit over what he considered district stalling on the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, reportedly threatening McGinley's job and calling her a bitch.

But Ravenel was an important player on the board because of his political connections, Butzon notes.

"You're losing one of the most politically savvy members," Butzon says. "He's someone who could pick up the phone and call the powers that be in the Statehouse."

It's an asset that has never been more important. Charleston's legislators continue to struggle for additional state funding, with Lowcountry schools at a competitive disadvantage with rural districts because of the region's perceived wealth.

It is too early to say what the new board's makeup will look like.

North Charleston community leader Cindy Bohn Coats is the only candidate looking to replace Toler. Two people are competing for Ruth Jordan's West Ashley seat: barbershop owner Michael Miller and retired teacher Mary Ann Taylor. The most competitive race will be for the two East Cooper seats left open by Meyers and Ravenel. Candidates include small-business owners Craig Ascue, Sonya Buckhannon, and Elizabeth Moffly, as well as David Grant and retired administrator and consultant Everett Wilcox. Candidates file to represent particular districts but are elected countywide.

It's not clear whether conservative candidates will be organized again this year, but there is another identifiable right-wing block on the ballot. Taylor is the president of the Charleston County Republican Women, Moffly was a GOP primary candidate for state education superintendent, and Sonya Buckhannon's husband, Ryan Buckhannon, was a conservative Republican in the recent Congressional primary to replace retiring Rep. Henry Brown.

On a listserv for parents and supporters of the Charter School for Math and Science, former school president Park Dougherty noted the support of Ravenel and Toler, but suggested Buckhannon and Moffly would provide solid support for the school.

Butzon says new board members should be relentlessly focused on results.

"We don't have a consistent drumbeat that insists on improvement," he says. "We've got to quit fooling around. We've got to get into the mode of 'Make it work, or else.' "

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