‘Educate the kids’: Mayors call for change at Charleston Co. School Board

The mayors of Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant called for unity on the Charleston County School Board and threatened action if they don't see it.
Published: Oct. 24, 2023 at 10:30 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 24, 2023 at 11:23 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The mayors of three of the state’s largest communities called for three changes at the Charleston County School Board and threatened to discuss “alternate means of governance” if the board cannot work out differences.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie called on the school board to restore transparency to its proceedings, stop trying to “micromanage” the district’s superintendent and focus on setting policy; and require a supermajority for making critical decisions.

Tecklenburg cited the Sept. 25 decision to place District Superintendent Dr. Eric Gallien on paid administrative leave, the refusal to appoint Michelle Simmons as chief academic officer and the dismissal of six members of the district’s Health Advisory Committee as “creating a crisis of confidence among principals, teachers, parents, taxpayers, legislators and, yes, mayors.”

“You’ve got to restore transparency. Critical decisions are clearly being made in secret backroom meetings without proper public debate and acknowledgment. That’s just got to stop,” Tecklenburg said. “It’s been widely shown that they’re not adhering to our [Freedom of Information Act] laws in this state.”

He urged the board to have conversations and work them out in the public realm.

He also said the board members need to “do their job, not the superintendent’s job.”

“The school board’s job is to set policy and hire the best-qualified professionals to carry it out, not to micromanage personnel decisions and the district office,” he said. “No qualified superintendent would ever agree to work under these conditions. They’ve got to get out of the micromanagement of the business. Educate the kids. That’s the mission.”

The mayors also called for a supermajority vote, which in the school board’s case would require six out of nine votes, to be able to hire and fire the superintendent.

“As for the six-vote supermajority, we did that with the town of Mount Pleasant comprehensive plan where it now takes a supermajority to change something as important and can be as disturbing as a comprehensive plan,” Haynie said. “You can do it under Robert’s Rules. It’s a simple thing to do.”

The decision to place Gallien on leave was the result of a 5-4 vote.

“The three of us today, mayors of North Charleston Charleston and Mount Pleasant, are here to ask that things get under control. Let’s go back to educating our kids. That’s the number one priority. Get your differences worked out. That’s fine. But don’t do it at the demise of the quality of education we need to give our children,” Summey said. “Our goal with educators should not be to enhance differences in people but to bring people together so that our children can be educated. And so we’re here to ask that the community get together. We’re here to possibly ask the legislators of the Charleston County area, we’ll get together to find some way to work this out so every child that goes into a public school in Charleston County has an opportunity to be educated and succeed.”

Haynie said what’s happening now is demoralizing frontline educators, concerning citizens and giving the region’s “hard-won economic profile and positive economic reputation a black eye.”

“We don’t need to be making headlines for the reasons we’re making them right now,” Haynie said. “We are pleading with the school board to correct the missteps, operate in transparency and put the students first, those students’ interests. Their interests and their trust in our educational system outweighs any of your personal interests.”

The mayors of Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant want the Charleston County School Board to make changes to refocus on education, not conflicts.

Economic development entered the conversation more than once, with Tecklenburg mentioning high-paying tech jobs moving into the area with median incomes high above the overall median income for Charleston County.

“We need to worry number one, about the education we have recruited jobs in Charleston County for the industries that have come in and we have not been able to prepare our children for the jobs that are coming in. That is a disgrace,” Summey said.

“Can you imagine what the legal bills have been for the Charleston County School District over the last year while they’ve been through all these shenanigans? I bet you could hire a dozen or more teachers,” Tecklenburg said.

Mayors threaten action if they do not see improvement

But the mayors did not stop there, saying they are prepared to escalate the situation if the school board is not willing to take the steps to “get back on track and restore trust.”

“We mayors are prepared to sit down with our legislative elevation and discuss alternate means of school governance, up to and including the consolidation of the county school district. You know, there are cities in this country that do a damn good job running schools,” Tecklenburg said. “And we’ll consider that, but we’ll talk with our state legislators about next steps on that.”

State Rep. Joe Bustos (R-Charleston), who chairs the Charleston County Legislative Delegation, also attended the news conference and said he supports the mayors’ fight to improve education and the school board’s governance.

“So I’m in lockstep with these gentlemen and whatever they need at the state level, I will try to get for them,” he said.

Bustos also answered a question about whether the General Assembly might consider moving away from single-member districts so that all school board members would be accountable to every Charleston County voter.

“That’s a state issue and I hear you,” he said. “And when we get back into session in January, I can assure you that that issue is going to be addressed because we see what’s happened and that is a state issue.”

The community has been questioning the board’s Sept. 25′s meeting at which it placed Gallien on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into an employee complaint about a “hostile work environment;” its vote to not hire interim Chief Academic Officer Michelle Simmons permanently into the role and the removal of the Health Advisory Committee members.

Some in the community have alleged the board’s actions are the result of racism.

School Board Member Dr. Carol Tempel, one of the four members who voted against placing Gallien on leave, released a statement late Tuesday afternoon about the mayors’ news conference:

I appreciate the mayors’ concerns. These are very difficult times to reason through issues and understand the perspectives of colleagues who vote as a power block. It’s hard to believe that the reasonable voices of the educators and community seem to be falling on deaf ears.

I think we need to have a 50, plus one vote for single-member school board races. Also, a supermajority vote of 6-3 could help with the serious issues we are dealing with such as keeping the superintendent on paid leave, policy changes, micromanaging the superintendent and derailing the health advisory committee.

Additionally, the leadership positions need to be distributed among all board members. One member holds three positions. Shared leadership and collaboration have not been prevalent on this board since February.

Let me also add that we need better legal and governance advice from people who thoroughly know CCSD board policy.

Darlene Dunmeyer-Roberson, another board member who voted against Gallien’s administrative leave, provided the following statement:

The comments by Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie at their press conference today were spot-on. I am very grateful for them raising awareness to how recent actions taken by the CCSD board will have wide ranging negative effects on Charleston County as a whole.

As a result of today’s press conference, I will be requesting we add to our next agenda a discussion over the Mayor’s call for the Board to change its policy from a majority to a supermajority vote. Requiring a supermajority will encourage greater discussion, dialogue, and compromise, and will take into account a wider range of perspectives that represent the broader interests of the entire school community.

School board holds first public meeting since superintendent suspension, shares no new details on investigation

The Charleston County School District Board of Trustees met Monday night to address several ongoing problems raised by the public.

The mayors’ news conference comes the day after the board held its first public meeting since placing Gallien on leave. The four board members who voted against placing him on leave, Darlene Dunmeyer-Roberson, Dr. Carol Tempel, Courtney Waters and Daron Lee Calhoun II, requested information going into the meeting on the status of the investigation.

The board heard an update from the school district’s attorney about the investigation into Gallien during an executive session but none of that information was shared with the public.

But that did not stop the public from making comments about the board’s actions over the last month.

“Something is quite wrong to cause such outcry,” Suzanne Hardy said during public comment. “If you are aware, you’re clearly not listening nor engaging the community. You act like you have a mandate for your extreme views and ignore us.”

“We’ve been here week after week telling you what we think and expressing ourselves,” Rebecca Hines said during public comment. “We’ve been telling you that you need to stop wasting our time and taxpayer money to reinstate Dr. Gallien, to hire Michelle Simmons as the Chief Academic Officer, and to reinstate the Health Advisory Council.”

The board also discussed recent footage of board member, Carlotte Bailey, alleged comments that “caused controversy in the community in fear among impacted student groups.”

“We cannot use those beliefs to discriminate against children and also against teachers,” board member Dr. Carol Tempel said. “I think that these things are serious enough for me to lose confidence in this person’s ability to perform three different leadership positions.”

Once again split on a five-four vote, the motion to remove her positions and motion to censor Bailey and make a public apology failed.

“Even the slip of paper we got with Facebook statements are enough to say this should not be someone in leadership,” board member Courtney Waters said. “One that cannot control their engagement with the public in a professional way should not be in leadership.”

Another item discussed at the meeting was an update to the district’s health advisory committee which was dissolved at the last meeting on September 25.

When addressed during the meeting, the board moved to hold a special meeting to discuss the committee in upcoming days or weeks.