At Monday night's meeting of the Charleston County School District Board of Trustees, more teachers spoke in favor of reinstating former Superintendent Nancy McGinley than spoke in favor of raising their own salaries.
"For the life of me, I cannot understand why you would ever ask such a successful person to resign," said one teacher from Charleston County School of the Arts.
Despite the fact that they did not appear on the meeting agenda, two district issues dominated the public comment session. One was an accusation, leveled by the teachers' advocacy group EdFirstSC, that the district had broken promises to its employees with regard to salary increases. The other was a concerted push to re-hire McGinley that included a testimonial from Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who said that McGinley had a work ethic "that put me to shame." Riley started his plea by saying that effective leadership includes having the humility to admit when you've made a mistake.
"I feel that that's what happened here," Riley said. "It was a time of controversy, of heightened feelings, a lot of passion, some misinformation, and what we lost in the process was an extremely accomplished educator, someone with an unbelievably huge heart for the children of the school district."
McGinley held the position of superintendent from 2007 until the board voted to accept her resignation on Oct. 30, 2014, over loud protests from some community members and the local NAACP. Shortly before her resignation, McGinley had dismissed a popular football coach at Academic Magnet High School after his players participated in a postgame ritual involving watermelon that some people deemed racially insensitive. She reinstated the coach on Oct. 22 after hearing an earful from angry AMHS parents and students, and on Oct. 30 the board voted to accept her resignation. As Post and Courier columnist Brian Hicks pointed out in a column, McGinley's dismissal was due largely to personal conflicts with some board members, including outgoing Elizabeth Moffly, who did not run for re-election in November.
In her time as superintendent, McGinley oversaw massive improvements, taking the district's state report card rating from Below Average to Excellent in the course of seven years. She spearheaded the Vision 2016 program, which sought to close student performance gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines.
At the start of the McGinley administration, the district had 22 schools rated either Unsatisfactory or At Risk by the state Department of Education; at the end, it had just four. And whereas in 2007, 44 percent of students in the district attended schools rated Good or Excellent, on the latest report card nearly 60 percent of students were in Good or Excellent schools.
One of the community leaders who spoke in favor of re-hiring McGinley was former State Board of Education member Cindy Clark, who called McGinley "a visionary." She said the board was wrong to remove McGinley when her mission was not yet accomplished. "As the Bible says, without a vision, the people perish," Clark said.
The AMHS controversy has become the focus of racial concerns in the district. At Monday night's meeting, the Rev. Nelson Rivers was among the public commenters calling for the district to consider the low number of African-American students at the district-wide magnet school. In a district where a recent census indicated that 47 percent of students were African American, only 15 of the 616 students (about 2 percent) at Academic Magnet are African American. In his critique of the district, Rivers called AMHS "a publicly funded private white academy."
One of the black students at AMHS, William Pugh, also spoke at the meeting. Pugh recently penned an op-ed in the school newspaper titled "Sometimes a Watermelon isn't Just a Watermelon," and at Monday night's meeting, he said that while he doesn't think his classmates are racists, he does think some have shown a "lack of sensitivity" in regards to the watermelon ritual.
"Some of the students think that this whole situation is a joke, and no one has stood up to tell them that their actions were wrong," Pugh said.
Since there was no item on the agenda involving the superintendent search, the board did not take action with regards to re-hiring McGinley Monday night. McGinley, asked for comment, did not reply.
Michael Miller, the lone board member who voted against accepting McGinley's resignation in October, said after the meeting that the board had not yet begun its search for a new superintendent. And he said that while he appreciated hearing public input at the meeting, he did not know whether the board would even consider inviting McGinley back to the district.
"It's just going to be conversation until something happens, whether the board puts an action item on the agenda or something happens on [McGinley's] end," Miller said. "But until that happens, it's just a conversation unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on what you think."
Since the district released McGinley from her position, the board's composition has changed significantly. Following the November elections, three new members joined the board: Eric L. Mack, Chris Staubes, and Kate Darby. Miller pointed out that, even if all three of the new board members voted in favor of reinstating McGinley and he did as well, their four votes would not be enough to reverse the decision of the nine-member board.
"Unless somebody who voted for her resignation changes their mind, it's just a conversation," Miller said.