The school board split isn't a figment of our overactive imagination. The five-to-four division has been the status quo since Nancy Cook left her role as referee (er, chairwoman) and joined the ranks of the minority. Depending on your politics, they're either the resistance or the dark side.
With five seats up for grabs, this year's election could alter the landscape of the board — shoring up a tepid majority or bringing about the kind of change board member Arthur Ravenel was hoping for two years ago.
Before candidates even filed for a seat on the board, the district was calling this year's budget wrangling "The Perfect Storm." Squeaking by this year on money saved for a rainy day, district officials are preparing for another $2 million or $3 million cut next year.
Elizabeth Kandrac says the district has wasted resources like federal aid for after-school programs, while David Engelman says the pain is self-inflicted. When times are tough, he says, "You don't sell your house. You tighten your belt."
Chris Collins says he'll press for more one-on-one interaction between teachers and students, noting every child doesn't learn at the same pace or with the same methods.
John Graham Altman says he's got a way to improve schools that won't cost a dime: "You throw the thugs out."
Kids can't learn when they're bullied, he says. If you get rid of troublemakers, the grades improve.
Altman would also reinstate promotion standards so that students aren't passed on to a higher grade unprepared.
Marvin Stewart says it goes back to improving the curriculum. Stewart often points to foreign language programs offered at some schools, but not others.
"We've been dumbing down education," he says.
Improvements will require increased accountability for principals and teachers, a theme echoed by other candidates, like Toya Green and Chris Fraser.
Fraser says the district's situation has been exacerbated by the state's use of a volatile sales tax to fund schools. But some of that blame rests with the school board.
"I haven't seen any leadership from the board in articulating the needs of the district to the public or the legislature," Fraser says.
Green says the district has to spread the wealth, putting talented, experienced teachers in the schools that need them the most.
Mattesse Lecque, Ann Oplinger, and Fraser say school consolidations are the answer to improving schools in tough times by combining resources and improving efficiencies.
"Some of the decisions are going to be difficult, but we all have to make difficult decisions in our personal finances," Oplinger says.
The administration will make recommendations next month on potential closings, but it will be up to the next school board to decide which schools make the cut. Several board candidates stressed that schools in remote locations aren't likely to be in danger.
Kandrac notes it's a sensitive issue, but that children tend to readjust well and that some schools would require millions in renovations if they're not shuttered.
Lecque says the district isn't being a good steward of the taxpayers' money if it leaves bad schools open.
"We're actually setting students up to fail, and they don't even know it," she says.
Stewart pointed to what he sees as a good indicator of the problem, as kids are leaving public schools because they're not challenged.
"In District 20, we haven't improved a single school, aside from Buist," he says, speaking of the peninsula district. "We're closing them."
Engelman suggested he'd oppose consolidations in every case, unless a struggling school could benefit from being incorporated into a nearby school that's performing better. Both Stewart and Green say the considerations should be comprehensive, making no single school a target for consolidation.
"Every school is on the table," Green says.
The district will have to show dividends for shaking up schools, Oplinger says.
"In the long run we have to show that it's created a better learning environment," she says. "When the dust settles, people have to see a value in it."
One of the most contentious debates over the last two years has been the emergence of charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools. The district is asking the court to determine whether charging rent to charters is legal.
Universally, candidates consider charter schools to be one of the options that should be available to parents, though each candidate showed varying levels of excitement.
John Graham Altman provided one of the folksy analogies he's known for.
"I see the charters and magnets and homeschooling as life boats," he says. "Parents see their (traditional public) schools are sinking."
Engelman says that charter schools benefit from not having that extra layer of bureaucracy other schools suffer from.
"Charter schools get parents back in charge," he says, noting that parents have to desire that responsibility.
Oplinger, Fraser, and Green are concerned about equitable funding for schools, noting that charters are funded under a different formula than traditional schools. Fraser says the solution may be in evening up costs countywide and making traditional schools more competitive.
Stewart says he's come full circle on charters, recognizing that parents need a choice.
"Parents shouldn't be forced to keep their kids in failing schools," he says. "We have to try something new."
Almost all of the candidates for school board say they would support countywide school choice in a perfect world.
"The parent should decide what they want their child's education to be," says Kandrac.
But several candidates noted the transportation and logistical setbacks of such a plan.
"Not every parent is going to be able to benefit from countywide choice," says Oplinger. "So every school should be good enough to send every child to."
Because of practical concerns about the distance and taking students out of their community, Collins says he'd only support regional choice between a handful of schools.
Green lauded the idea of having different focuses at different schools, like a school focused on foreign language and world studies, with community input as a key.
"We need to put more creativity in our public school system that's become somewhat antiquated," she says.
Engelman went even further to say that he supported, "almost every option you can imagine," with the money following the child.
"Competition works," he says.
Kandrac says her "conservative, intelligent approach" makes her philosophically in line with current board members Engelman, Arthur Ravenel, and Ray Toler. She wants to have cameras in the hallways and in every classroom.
"I'd like to see what is going on in my kids' classroom," she says.
Engelman says that teaching reading early is key and that students should be prepared for the workforce when they leave.
"We've got to redirect a lot of our funds to trade, but we've also got to have jobs for these kids," he says.
Lecque also called for more vocational training, paired with business, nonprofit, and university partners. She also says that the board should be supportive of the superintendent and her vision and that members should act like adults.
"These kids don't have any role models, and then they see the school board fighting," she says.
Oplinger would like to spotlight the good things going on in the district as a board member.
"We tend to paint the district with a sad, broad brush," she says. "There are pockets of excellence that should be highlighted and emulated."
Altman called for citizens to revolt on election day, noting the large number of unsatisfactory schools.
"That's a crisis," he says. "We're not educating our students the way we should."
Stewart emphasized that peninsula schools were still being shortchanged by the district, but he stressed the importance of parental involvement.
"That's where schools succeed and where others don't," he says.
Collins says delinquency needs to be addressed.
"We've got some who are smoking, drinking, and getting into crime," he says. "We need to hold students and parents accountable for getting that child to school."
Fraser echoes the call for business and community involvement and noted that early education needs to be a priority. He also calls for the district to share facilities like athletic fields with other local governments.
"We need to collaborate together instead of having individual government silos," he says.
Green reasserted her belief that the district is on the right track in improving the education of every student.
"There's hope," she says. "As long as we maintain that hope, the progress will come."
The Crazy Way Charleston Picks a School Board
The county is broken up into regions: North Area, West Ashley, East Cooper, and the City of Charleston. Even though members are elected to represent these districts, every race is on every ballot, countywide. The election is also non-partisan, so those using the straight party ticket will need to make sure they don't miss this category at the end.
North Area (2 seats to fill)
• Elizabeth Kandrac
• Mattese Lecque
• Chris Collins
West Ashley (2 seats to fill)
• John Graham Altman
• David Engelman
• Chris Fraser
• Ann Oplinger
City of Charleston (1 seat to fill)
• Toya Hampton Green
• Marvin B. Stewart