About 15 years ago, the Charleston County School Board unceremoniously ran Chip Zullinger out of town.

Some board members didn't like the superintendent's management style, his radical thinking and, frankly, his refusal to kowtow to them.

They cut him loose with a year left on his contract and said good riddance. That's just the way it was in those days. Zullinger was Charleston County's seventh school superintendent in 30 years.

There are probably folks around here who to this day still harbor a grudge, but they might as well let it go.

Sidney "Chip" Zullinger passed away last week in Texas. He was only 63.

Zullinger was working as chief elementary school officer for Houston's public school district, overseeing 147 schools. He was continuing his life's work in education when the heart attack came.

He didn't keep up with many people in Charleston, and that's understandable given the way things ended. But a lot of people here haven't forgotten Zullinger.

He was ahead of his time.

Change, the hard way

Brian Moody, who was on the school board then, says Zullinger was nothing less than a transcendent figure.

"He took a sledge hammer to the bureaucracy, to the status quo," Moody says. "Chip was a catalyst for a lot of change."

Zullinger was hired in 1996 and immediately upended things. He allowed a group of parents in North Charleston to start Charlestowne Academy before charter schools were all the rage. If something wasn't working, he wasn't subtle - he would tear it down to the foundation and start over.

He got the business community involved in public schools, something that had scarcely been considered before. It made perfect sense - businesses rely on the schools to churn out future employees - but they had never had a hand in shaping education.

Plus, those folks could raise money.

"He is the guy who got me involved in public education," says local attorney Neil Robinson, one of the men who started the Charleston Education Network. "I think the business community is more involved today. Chip was an agent of change, and he will be sorely missed."

Zullinger challenged the state law that capped the amount of taxes a local school district could levy. It was like a noose around the neck of local schools, forcing the board to choose between paying salaries, buying textbooks or taking care of our aging schools with preventative maintenance.

We all know what lost out in that scenario.

Eventually, locals took the state to court and the cap was declared unconstitutional.

By then, Zullinger was gone. But his vision of Charleston schools was beginning to take shape.

Shiny new schools

Fifteen years ago, most of the schools in Charleston County were Cold War-era buildings - except in Mount Pleasant, where the schools were somewhat newer, but terribly overcrowded.

Plaster was chipping off the walls, ceiling tiles were falling faster than Wal-Mart prices and mold was growing like a science experiment gone bad.

Charleston had not been taking care of its schools.

Zullinger led the charge for a $175 million bond referendum that started the district on a building program that continues to this day.

"His legacy is building," Moody says. "He believed letting kids go to school in these run-down buildings was indicative of what was going on inside."

Jon Butzon, who was director of the Charleston Education Network back then, said Zullinger is responsible for a lot of the change that has happened in schools, and tried to do other things that should have been done.

"He said that change has to be real, it has to be radical and it has to be right now," Butzon says.

But that kind of revolutionary thinking didn't set well in traditional Charleston. After the 1998 election, there were enough school board members to order an investigation of Zullinger. They claimed he spent money without board authorization, did not follow board directives.

They got rid of him.

These days most of Charleston County's schools have been refurbished or rebuilt. And even though he was not here to build those schools, Zullinger got the ball rolling.

And that's a pretty good legacy.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.