By Herb Frazier, Charleston City Paper

Two advocacy groups met this month with local school officials to discuss the functions of the Charleston County School District (CCSD) Board of Trustees and student academic performance. The meetings are signs that controversies in the district are making voters more politically astute, one local pastor said.

In November 2022, Charleston County voters elected nine council members after local legislators changed to single-member districts. This November, four current school board seats will be up for election as board selection returns to staggered cycles.

More responsiveness requested

At its recent Nehemiah Action Assembly, the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) presented a list of demands for school officials to be more responsive to the community and provide training for district trustees, among other concerns.

Because the school board chairman and district superintendent didn’t agree to all of CAJM’s demands, the interfaith coalition sent an “all call” message to its list of more than 1,000 members to attend the school board’s meeting at 5:15 p.m. today. About 28 CAJM members are expected to attend, said CAJM’s director of communications Rickey Dennis.

The Charleston Branch of the NAACP also met recently with CCSD Superintendent Anita Huggins at Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street.

Also scheduled to meet with Huggins on May 2 is the Friends of Burke. It plans to ask how the district would improve instruction at schools that have fallen behind academically.

“Every year they come up with a new plan, and they are going to improve these schools but nothing happens,” said Arthur Lawrence, president of the Friends of Burke and a 1967 graduate of the school.

“One or two students might achieve, but what happens to kids who are trapped in these failing schools,” Lawrence said.

Meetings with school officials being held within days of one another is either “serendipity or an urgency of now,” said the Rev. Joseph Darby, senior pastor of Nichols Chapel AME Church in Charleston. “[We] have a school board that has proven itself to be prejudiced to reactionary,” he said.

CAJM and the NAACP, Darby said, are independently trying to “hold the [school] board accountable and, at the same time, try to lay the foundation for politically educated people to make changes in the school board and to take it back from the Moms for Liberty. The hubris of this board is pushing people” for change.

A community reaction

A new round of protests is expected to start today at the school board meeting. The Rev. Patricia Bligen Jones, a CAJM negotiator, said, “We plan to show up at every school board meeting and have our voices heard.”

The community’s reaction to the board’s 2023 controversial decisions has brought out a much more diverse response that includes teachers who are speaking against the board, said Arthur McFarland, a Charleston attorney and a past CAJM co-president.

“CCSD has experienced a glitch,” one Charleston County teacher wrote in a letter recently read at a CAJM assembly. “We are awash with confusion and mistrust and frustration. Teachers regularly joke about the miscommunications, back-room dealing, and grief handed to us by this board because if we don’t laugh, we will cry. We will cry for our students who don’t feel like they are seen. We will cry for our profession.”

During CAJM’s months-long process of listening to the community before the Nehemiah Action Assembly, students also said they felt unsafe and uncared for by the school board, CAJM officials said.

Last year, the school board executed questionable employment practices, held unannounced and abruptly called meetings with suspicious and frequent executive sessions. These actions prompted criticism that the board ignored the state Freedom of Information Act.

On of the most memorable controversies occurred Sept. 11, 2023, when five trustees backed by the right-wing political group Moms for Liberty — then chairman Pamela McKinney, Carlotte Bailey, Keith Grybowski, Ed Kelley and Leah Whatley — abruptly called a meeting to discuss newly hired but soon fired superintendent Eric Gallien’s contract. Neither Gallien nor the other trustees — Darlene Roberson, Carol Tempel, Courtney Waters and Daron Calhoun II — reportedly were told of the meeting or its purpose.

The board also was criticized sharply when, during the search to fill Gallien’s position as superintendent, it caused the district’s current chief academic officer Michelle Simmons, a Black woman, to undergo a rigorous hiring process before selecting current superintendent Anita Huggins, a white woman, without a similar process.

That led CAJM to prepare a list of demands for change, which included continuous audits of the board by an outside group, and ethics and Robert’s Rules of Order training for trustees. The group also pushed for a sweeping evaluation of the superintendent’s performance within three months centering on student priorities and management and engagement.

Grybowski, the current board chair, and Huggins attended the recent CAJM assembly.

Grybowski said no to each of CAJM’s demands. On the issue of the board receiving additional training, he said board members are required by the S.C. Department of Education to receive ethics training.

Huggins agreed to advocate for an assessment of the board’s policy compliance and ethical governance within the next 90 days by an outside entity.

But she said no to an independent audit of the district’s human relations, finance and operations departments to begin within the next three months by an outside entity for a sweeping evaluation of her performance. She said the audit process does not come through her as the superintendent, but she did say that she wants the community to hold her accountable.

Three board members – Waters, Roberson and Calhoun – agreed to a separate list of demands for accountability.

Meeting in a sacred space

Huggins and Simmons recently met with some 50 people at a meeting called by the NAACP and held in the lower level at Emanuel.

During their presentation, the educators said more Black and Hispanic students are prepared for kindergarten. However, gaps remain in the number of Black and Hispanic students who are prepared for college and professional careers as compared to white students, said NAACP branch treasurer Jerome Clemons, a Charleston Realtor.

Clemons told the Charleston City Paper he wants to know more of the district’s demographics and how it has changed. “We ought to know exactly the population and what has transpired in the last five years,” he said. “Our progress is good,” he said, “But where are our (Black) students” and how has the racial makeup of schools changed?

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