The last year has been a whirlwind for the Charleston County School District School Board, as they have been faced with many difficult decisions on how to best improve schools in the district. But in the process, they faced backlash from parents, teachers and others in the community, to the point where state legislators became involved.
Leon Stavrinakis, state representative for D-Charleston, proposed a bill that would change the way school board members are elected to office. Currently, CCSD operates with an at-large system, where every resident in Charleston County votes for board members regardless of the specific area the board member would represent. Single-member districts would have board members be elected only by those who live in the area they represent.
“With single-member districts, you would represent a particular district and would be responsible for the concerns of the schools for that particular area,” Stavrinakis said. “So there would be no more doubt as to who was supposed to be your voice as a citizen or who was supposed to be representing a certain school.”
The bill passed through the S.C. House of Representatives and is now up for its second of three readings in the Senate, where amendments can be made to it.
A big reason that the bill was proposed was an attempt to make accountability a larger focus for school board members, Stavrinakis said. People in opposition to the changes the school board was making at times did not know who to contact to make their opinions known, Stavrinakis said.
“As a legislator, I started getting a lot of contacts last year about changes and mergers and a bunch of different things that CCSD was proposing within my district and other legislators’ as well,” Stavrinakis said. “And just over the course of that, there seemed to us to be a lack of responsiveness and also most importantly, a lack of an ability for voters and parents and students and teachers to know who’s the contact person and who’s accountable for their particular area.”
Many districts, especially the larger ones, in the state have already switched to a single-member system.
“We are the second largest school district in the state and all of the other large school districts such as Greenville, Horry and Berkeley County, they all have single-member districts,” Sarah Shad Johnson, District 2 Constituent Board Chair, said.
Having a single-member system helps large counties have more direct representation from residents living in different areas, Johnson said.
“Individual communities and smaller areas would get to elect their own representatives versus what happens now,” she said. “Take last election in Mount Pleasant. If you look at who they voted for to be on the board, the number one person that received the most votes in our area did not win because since it’s a county-wide vote, it allows other areas to pick our representatives.”
Allowing people to do more personable campaigning for elections is also where a single-member system may become beneficial for those running for the school board in the future.
“It kind of levels the playing field for folks. You see a lot of people run for school board and their campaigns aren’t big-money campaigns. When you have a 400,000 voter pool, it’s hard to go knock on doors and meet voters on the grassroots level and win an election that way,” Stavrinakis said.
One argument to a single-member system is that elections being held county-wide help board members in making decisions for the county as a whole as well as their specified district.
“I think right now the nine of us are elected county-wide and so I certainly pay really close attention to what is happening in East Cooper because that is the area that I represent and I live, but I also care about what’s going on in the whole county so I think that’s a benefit of the way that we have it now,” Kate Darby, Vice Chair of the CCSD School Board, said.
Currently, the lines that would be used for the single-member districts that the bill describes would be the same as those used for County Council elections, which break up the county into nine districts. But an issue that legislators have had to consider is the fact that 2020 census data will make it necessary to redraw these lines next year.
“I’m hopeful based on what I’ve heard from members of the delegation that they recognize that we’re about to have a census. Single-member districts will probably need to be redrawn,” Darby said. “They’re basing them on the districts that Charleston County Council has and so I’m hoping that… if it moves forward it won’t be effective until 2022.”
Another controversy of the transition from an at-large system to a single-member district system stems from the need to “reform the entire board into a single-member system,” which involves having all current board members run for re-election in November, regardless of how long they have served.
“And that is sort of a sticky point for some. There are five people that are up for re-election anyways, but then there are four that are in the middle of their term,” Johnson said. “It’s my understanding that whether they do this this year or in two years, it would still likely be a clean slate, which means you would have…to cut someone’s term short.”
Although cutting some board members’ terms short would be part of enacting the current version of the bill in order to switch to a single-member system, Darby hopes that another solution will be found
“I think that the school board members and the delegation want us to improve our schools. I think we all want the same goal and I hope that we’ll come to a conclusion that isn’t going to remove anybody from office. I feel strongly about that. I think the smartest approach for the delegation would be to just really research In the state of South Carolina, there are some boards that are single-member, some that are at large, and there are actually some that have single-member and at large,” Darby said.
Because of this issue and others to consider with this bill, the Senate is taking the time to deliberate it, and is tentatively expected to come to a consensus next week.