The rampant dysfunction on the school board can be summed up in a single quote: "I want it on the record that I said I want it on the record."
That was board member Elizabeth Kandrac, resident nitpicker, speaking at a July 24 board meeting. We don't remember what the topic at hand was, but the quote went into a little file we keep called "Sh*t Kandrac Says." It's a perfect encapsulation of the petty tyranny Kandrac wreaks on a regular basis at board meetings.
You see, Kandrac lives in a bizarro world not too far from here where it's acceptable to carry out a public vendetta against the chairman of the board and superintendent of the school district. It's a place where conspiracy theories all come true, and everyone is out to get her. At an April 23 board meeting, she went off the agenda to point out that the U.S. flag had been placed at the wrong side of the room, and she later accused a district employee of defaming a company regarding school lunches (no further explanation provided). At a June 25 meeting, she insisted that the roll call be taken alphabetically and questioned the trustworthiness of an internal report because it was printed on glossy paper.
Fortunately for our children, Kandrac's term is expiring, she's not running for re-election, and she's no longer teaching at Brentwood Middle School. But her frequent allies on the board, Awendaw business owner and homeschool mom Elizabeth Moffly and North Charleston appliance repairman the Rev. Chris Collins, are still in it. Moffly's term doesn't expire until 2014, and Collins is running for re-election this year. Worse yet, sources tell us Collins is considering a bid for chairman.
The Kandrac-Moffly-Collins trifecta of terror was in full effect at a Sept. 24 board meeting, when the three carried on a 45-minute conversation about whether school resource officers were violating students' constitutional rights, prompting then-Chairman Chris Fraser to walk out of the meeting in frustration.
On balance, they were bringing up a legitimate concern, sparked by a parent's complaint that she wasn't allowed to be present while police questioned her daughter. But they were going about it the wrong way. Rather than make it an agenda item, they inserted it into a routine re-approval of contracts with local police departments, hitting everybody else in the room with a blindside.
We get why voters like people of Kandrac's ilk. They've got fire in their bellies, which is fine; a board that acted as a lapdog to Superintendent Nancy McGinley would indeed be worthless. But we would rather have candidates who are mad for the right reasons, like the persistent racial and economic performance gaps in our district, or the fact that Charleston County is home to some of the worst-performing schools in one of the worst-performing states in the union. And when board members get angry, they still need to be constructive.
We bring all this up not just to rag on Kandrac, but to point out the sorts of things we don't want out of our new school board. Voters have a chance to install five brand-new members on the nine-person board this year. We're holding out hope for a strong board, not a nightmare scenario. Here are three possible outcomes of the election:
The Scooby Gang
Todd Garrett (Downtown)
John Barter (West Ashley)
Jim Ramich (West Ashley)
Mattese Lecque (North Charleston)
Like the mystery-solving dog and his posse — or like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer team that borrowed their moniker — these four candidates are seasoned experts who would see straight through whatever mischief is afoot in the school district.
These candidates — an Iraq-veteran industrial real estate expert, a retired financial analyst, a retired executive vice president, and a retired Army reservist — come highly recommended. All four were endorsed by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, Citizens Working Together for Great Schools, and the teachers' advocacy group EdFirstSC. Ginny Deerin, chairwoman of CWTGS, says her organization was looking for "candidates who understand the importance of working together." Specifically, she said, they picked the ones who seemed like they didn't have personal agendas and weren't looking for a single-issue soapbox.
Those are important qualities to consider, and we agree that all four of these candidates are strong options. We could do a little bit better, though. On school boards, as on teams of detectives (or demon hunters), diversity of opinions and backgrounds really is important. That's why we propose another scenario, the ultimate squad: The Ghostbusters (see below).
The Charleston Chainsaw Massacre
Bruce Smith (Downtown)
Henry Copeland (West Ashley)
Brian Thomas (West Ashley)
Chris Collins (North Charleston)
Elect these four people to the board, and all hell will surely break loose.
For starters, you've got Henry Copeland, the only current school board candidate who has ever been banned from district property. Copeland has a history of dominating conversations, including in his three-year stint on the downtown constituent school board. In January 2011, the school district's attorney told Copeland he couldn't come to school board meetings, writing in a letter, "We are now on official notice from employees that you have made them physically afraid." The ban has since been lifted.
Copeland sought a legislative appointment to fill Mary Ann Taylor's vacant seat last year, and it is worth noting that Elizabeth Kandrac, the board's angriest current member, gave him a ringing endorsement. "He'd be another voice for the people who aren't rubber stamps for the superintendent," Kandrac told the Post and Courier. "I think he's reasonable and could build coalitions." Is your spine shivering yet?
No? Then consider the other candidates in this nightmare scenario. The Rev. Chris Collins strikes us as willfully oblivious. At a recent candidate forum, he told the audience, "I didn't know we had a dysfunctional board." Maybe he was thinking of a different board.
This is the same Collins who ran for mayor of North Charleston in 2011 on a platform that included stationing horse-mounted police with shotguns in residential areas (A potential burglar, he told the City Paper, would have to think, "Can I outrun this horse? Can I tote a TV?").
What could possibly make things worse? Oh yeah, how about a couple of school-choice advocates? Brian Thomas and Bruce Smith both support the idea of allowing parents to use public school funding toward private education, and while a voucher system is much more likely to come from the state level than the district level, their stance is hardly a vote of confidence in public schools. Like Ron Swanson, the irascible libertarian working in city government on Parks and Recreation, they would manage a public good while pushing for its dismantling.
Louis Weinstein (Downtown)
John Barter (West Ashley)
Michael Miller (West Ashley)
Tom Ducker (North Charleston)
Mattese Miller Lecque (North Charleston)
Who you gonna call to vanquish the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man that is the board's current dysfunctional malaise? These guys, that's who.
A good school board requires a healthy mix of people with different backgrounds and strengths, and after interviewing all 13 candidates and comparing them side by side, these five look like the best hope our district has.
Louis Weinstein brings previous school board experience to the team, having served four years as president of a board in Toledo, Ohio. There, he claims credit for building new schools that solved an overcrowding problem not unlike what we're seeing at Wando High School. He also has experience restoring civility to a school board, having enforced strict agendas and time limits on the Toledo school board. Todd Garrett was another strong candidate for the downtown seat, with an impressive record of humanitarian work and good understanding of the big-picture politics of the school board, but we felt that Weinstein's previous experience was more relevant.
In West Ashley candidates John Barter and Michael Miller, we get a financial expert and a passionate grassroots advocate. Barter's career working in finance for AlliedSignal gives him a firm grasp on budgeting, and as the board discusses the possibility of a massive, district-wide audit, he'll be able to speak from experience about the most effective way to run one. Jim Ramich, another West Ashley candidate, also had an impressive business background as a retired executive vice president of Corning, but we found Barter's skill set to be more relevant to the district's current problems. Besides, we wanted to save the other West Ashley seat for Michael Miller.
Miller, who ran for the board previously in 2010, would bring more on-the-ground experience than any other candidate. He's been volunteering in area schools since the mid-'90s, long before he had a daughter of his own. Struggling schools like North Charleston High School need a passionate advocate on the board, and we believe Miller is that man.
In North Charleston, voters only get three choices for the two open seats, but Tom Ducker and Mattese Miller Lecque are both good options. Ducker brings a moderate, common-sense approach, with practical ideas for restoring peace to the school board. Lecque has actual teaching experience in middle and high schools, and she recognizes that problems like high dropout rates can be traced back through the feeder schools all the way to pre-K.