For as long as most people can remember, the Charleston County School Board been featured on the front page of local newspapers for all the wrong reasons. Its meetings have been punctuated by petty arguments, meaningless, meandering discussions, vicious vendettas and unfounded accusations. In October, less than a week before a new board was to be elected, the old board forced the district’s longest-serving superintendent to resign, despite the district’s academic success during her tenure.
The two newest members of the school board representing East Cooper want to change all that. Kate Darby and Chris Staubes, both entering the political arena for the first time, were elected to four-year terms to the board on Nov. 4 and were sworn in six days later.
“We want the front page news concerning the school district to be about academic achievement and awards our students win, not about fighting among school board members,” said Darby, the director of administration at J. Henry Stuhr funeral home. “The most important focus should be on student achievement. That should be our goal.”
“The infighting was a distraction,” Staubes, an attorney, added. “We want to bring stability to the school board.”
Though neither Darby nor Staubes has run for elected office in the past, both have a vested interest in and previous connections to the county school system. Darby’s two sons are graduates of Wando High School, and she has chaired the School Improvement Council at Mount Pleasant Academy, Moultrie Middle and Wando. She also was president of the PTA at Mount Pleasant Academy and served on a committee tasked with coming up with ways to solve the problem of overcrowded East Cooper schools.
Staubes was the real estate attorney for the school district for a decade, resigning from that position so he could run for a seat on the board. He has three children in the system: a 15-year-old at Academic Magnet High School, a 13-year-old at Cario Middle School and a 9-year-old at Pinckney Elementary School.
Darby and Staubes agree that the job description for a school board member should not include managing the day-to-day operations of the district. That responsibility belongs to the superintendent, or, in the case of Charleston County, the interim superintendent.
“The job of the board is to set policy and supervise the superintendent. It isn’t to micromanage,” Staubes said.
“The board is a liaison between the public and the superintendent,” he added, pointing out that he is already fielding phone calls from various groups that want to provide board members with information about their positions on issues related to education.
“Our role is to hold the superintendent accountable and have oversight over the budget,” Darby stated. “We’re not there to micromanage.”
Much of the work of the board’s nine members will be done in the Policy, Strategic Education and Audit and Finance committees. Darby is a member of the Policy Committee, while both Darby and Staubes serve on the Strategic Education Committee.
Staubes also was elected by his fellow board members to be vice chair. He meets with the chair, Cindy Bohn Coats, and the superintendent to set the agenda for each board meeting. He also will be responsible for handling what in the past was one of the most contentious parts of school board sessions: when the general public gets to voice their opinion to their elected officials.
Staubes pointed out that the Charleston County School District has many pressing needs, but the most important are choosing a new superintendent and deciding which schools will be built or expanded to serve the needs of a sprawling district with 48,000 students. He and Darby agreed that a nationwide search for a new leader is appropriate, but neither ruled out the possibility of offering the job to someone who is already in the Lowcountry, such as Interim Superintendent Michael Bobby, Chief Academic Officer Lisa Herring or even McGinley.
“I don’t know what was in the agreement Dr. McGinley made with the previous board,” Darby explained. “But I was looking forward to working with her, and I would be open to a discussion about her returning.”
Staubes, who indicated that a new superintendent to be in place sometime in 2015, said “no doors are shut” concerning McGinley’s future with the Charleston County School District.
What criteria will the new board use to choose a new leader for the district? Staubes and Darby both said the next superintendent should be a strong leader; a team builder; have an education background but be business-minded; know how to delegate; be a strong communicator; and be a visionary who understands what’s unique about the Charleston area. They are confident that a person with these qualities exists, either in the Lowcountry or somewhere else around the country.
Meanwhile, Staubes, Darby and seven other school board members are working on providing more room to serve the educational needs of a district that is growing by approximately 1,500 students a year. Staubes is concerned that some students must eat lunch as early as 10:30 a.m., while others are attending class in temporary trailers. Plans are already underway to build a new East Cooper high school at the site of the old Wando High School. Serious work can’t begin, however, until Laing Middle and Jennie Moore Elementary students move out of the old Wando building and into their new, permanent home when the school year begins in August 2015.
In addition, a new elementary school will be built in Carolina Park in north Mount Pleasant.
A permanent superintendent and new schools are the board’s top priorities, but re-establishing the public’s trust in the board also is vitally important, according to the two new representatives from East of the Cooper.
“What we hear is distrust of the school district,” Darby said. “The board needs to communicate better with parents, the community and teachers. For example, some people don’t know how to apply to a magnet school. We need to make it easy and accessible to do that.”
“I’m not going to agree on everything with everyone on the board,” she went on to say. “But we will hear each other out and be civil.”
“We need to start the healing process,” Staubes added.
Story and photograph by Brian Sherman.
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