Ben D'Allesandro is more famous for his pizza than his politics. He and brother Nick opened their eponymous pizzeria on St. Philip Street in 2006, and in that short time they have become a local institution.
D'Allesandro is a Philadelphia native who came to the College of Charleston with his brother, got a degree in urban studies, city planning, and administration, then made a major career switch into pepperoni and tomato sauce. Two years ago — at age 30, with no children or political background — he did something else unexpected. He ran for the District 20 Constituent School Board.
You are forgiven if you have not heard of Charleston County's constituent school board system. It is a unique — and some say anachronistic — remnant of earlier times. Constituent school boards were created to represent local interests when Charleston County's various smaller school districts were consolidated in 1967.
District 20 covers the Charleston peninsula where D'Allesandro lives, and he wanted to join that august body. "It seemed like a convenient way to get involved with the community," he says. "I love Charleston."
His decision was made easier by the fact that he had no opposition for the position. "No campaigning, no expense," he says. "It turned out to be a perfect fit for what it is."
The constituent school board has very little power, but what they do can be very important to students and their families. They review student transfers and expulsions and draw district attendance lines.
D'Allesandro is one of seven board members, and their meetings are low-key and collegial. The members respect one another and have the students' needs at heart, unlike the Charleston County School Board, which has become so riven with personal and political strife that it is barely functional. The CCSB — the "big school board," as D'Allesandro calls it — is considering hiring a parliamentarian to help its members avoid distracting, disruptive arguments at its meetings.
Perhaps it's the lack of publicity that enables the constituent school boards to do their work so quietly and effectively. Members do not seem to be motivated by ambition or ideology. They answer only to their conscience and best judgment.
One of District 20 Board's biggest jobs is reviewing disciplinary cases in which children have been expelled. Oftentimes, the board tries to resolve a crisis without the "capital punishment" of expulsion. "Everyone on the board wants to do whatever they can for the children. You can't just kick them out of school completely," D'Allesandro says. "The toughest [cases] are the ones where a child is acting out because their home life is so terrible and so torn apart. They bother students so much it's really hard for them to learn."
He adds, "The kids act like big shots with their peers, but when they come before the board, they are just mumbling and crying. Sometimes just a visit before the board is enough to set them straight."
He remembers one recent case of a middle school boy who was starting fights and creating other problems. His school wanted him expelled. It turns out the kid was living with a single mother, and his brother was killed in some senseless shooting a couple of years before. The board recommended the boy be sent to the Daniel Jenkins Creative Learning Center, a special disciplinary school created by CCSD.
"It was like it flipped a switch or something," D'Allesandro says. "The next time we saw the kid, he was all smiling and happy." He should be back in a mainstream school next year.
For D'Allesandro and his board, the work is personal and hands on. Some of the board members even know many of the children — or their families — who come before them for discipline or transfers. "Everyone wants the best for these kids. It's personal."
D'Allesandro has taken home a big lesson in his first two years on the board.
"It's politics almost on a micro scale, equal to a neighborhood association board," he says. "It gives me some insight into why it's so difficult to make decisions on the big school board and on county council and in Congress even. People are different. They have different backgrounds and different values."
Ben D'Allesandro has two more years to serve in his first term on the constituent school board and refuses to speculate on whether he will run again or seek another office. If he should seek higher office, he has at least proven that he has the right motives and has learned a few things about real politics and real people. Every candidate for office should pass such a test.
Will Moredock is a South Carolina native with degrees from the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina. He is an award-winning journalist and short-story writer and author of Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach.