All it took was a rumor.

Last week, folks on James Island heard that their charter high school's board was about to fire the baseball coach - and maybe the boys' basketball coach, too.

There had been no official word about this, but islanders had all the proof they needed: Tom Hatley, the baseball coach for 27 years, who has led the Trojans to two state championships, had been removed as the school's athletic director a month earlier.

Then there was the corroborating evidence: the board already had gotten rid of the football coach and the principal in the winter.

It looked like the board was getting a little power mad.

And James Islanders said enough is enough.

So more than 100 people showed up for the board meeting Monday, even though the chairman assured everyone there was no discussion of coaches on the agenda.

That did not matter to the parents, former students, former teachers and basketball team - all of which made impassioned pleas for the jobs of their coaches. They wanted the board to know how they felt, and it was not ambiguous.

And then a funny thing happened.

The board listened.

Do the math

It might be an overstatement to say all those folks saved Hatley's and Stan Wilkins' jobs.

Sources close to the school say that no one's firing was imminent. But the subject had been broached - this is the time of year when coaching contracts are renewed.

So who knows what might have happened?

Perhaps the people put out a fire before it could start. As one person described it, the board got "a good dose of community sentiment." And that's exactly what it needed.

A charter school is a strange animal. Although it is part of the county school district, James Island High is run by its parents and staff.

On paper, it seems like a fine idea: the school gets to chart its own course, it has autonomy, flexibility. Parents are intimately involved with their children's education.

But anytime you have a board - and elections - you're going to have politics. And there is nothing worse than school politics.

At its most unappealing, a charter school can be like turning education over to a homeowners association. Give some people a little power and they turn into mall cops.

That's what a lot of people feared was happening at James Island. The rumor was that the former principal had been fired over the issue of who had the power to hire and fire - you guessed it - coaches.

Some board members have children who play sports, as everyone on the island knows.

You don't have to go to a charter school to be able to add 2 + 2.

A warning

There are some good people on the James Island Charter High School board, parents and community activists who care deeply about the education of their children.

Admittedly, there are different interests among the board members. Some are more interested in athletics than others. When about 600 of your 1,400 students participate in athletics, that makes sense.

But they have to realize as board members they are there to do what's best for the school as a whole. Micromanaging for your own ends is never a good idea. It's a lesson a lot of politicians could stand to learn. They also need to know that in politics - and that's what this is, politics - perception is reality.

Whether or not board members were over-stepping their authority is in some ways beside the point. The fact is, it looked like they were.

"I am hopeful that this experience has exposed some issues that needed to be illuminated with the school board, and that is has encouraged an interest in many members of the school and community to become more active," says Pam Hill White, a parent who spoke at the meeting.

So the board wisely, and unanimously, went along with board member Susan Milliken's suggestion that the board give back the power to hire and fire coaches to the newly installed principal. That's how it should be: a board sets policy, the administration runs things.

Of course, cynics are going to point out that, since the board hires and fires the principal, they could just lean on their new administrator to do their bidding.

That could happen, but folks at the school say it won't.

For the board's own sake, they'd better take Monday as a warning.

See, news travels fast on James Island. And the people there don't cotton to tyrants or mall cops micromanaging a good thing.

As they proved this week.

Reach Brian Hicks at