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Democratic school superintendent candidates debate

Sheila Gallagher (left) and Tom Thompson face each other June 24 in the Democratic primary runoff for S.C. superintendent of education.

COLUMBIA - The two Democratic candidates in a runoff for their party's nomination to lead South Carolina's schools debated Thursday without ever talking about one candidate's idea that propelled her to a surprise first-place finish in the primary: legalizing and taxing marijuana to pay for schools.

Former South Carolina Education Association president Sheila Gallagher has suggested that selling marijuana in South Carolina could raise hundreds of millions of dollars for schools. The idea received plenty of attention and plenty of scorn, but also garnered Gallagher 36 percent of the vote in the primary earlier this month.

Gallagher's runoff opponent, South Carolina State University dean of graduate studies Tom Thompson, who received 26 percent of the vote, has said it is absurd to link buying marijuana to quality education. But the word "marijuana" was not said once by the candidates or the questioners at the debate.

Instead, the candidates agreed on nearly everything, from raising teacher's pay to getting more money to rural school districts to maintaining the state superintendent of education as an elected position. Here are the main things the candidates did talk about at the debate, which will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Thursday on South Carolina Educational Television and linked to the station's website.

PARENT-TEACHER MEETINGS


One topic that did split the candidates was a proposal from Gallagher that parent-teacher meetings carry the same weight as a jury summons, requiring businesses to let parents have time off to visit schools and requiring the parents to show up.

"Too many times are parents are still a little hesitant to come to the school and this might provide more encouragement for them to come in and meet with the teacher," Gallagher said.

Thompson said he couldn't support that proposal because it makes the parents and the schools adversaries.

"Sometimes you have to go to the parents' place. Meet them on their ground," Thompson said.

BIGGEST PROBLEM FOR STUDENTS


Thompson thinks the best thing South Carolina schools could do for their students is pay more attention to getting children ready for careers. He said many children think they can only make a good living by becoming famous.

"There are lots of high-paying jobs available behind the scenes," Thompson said.

Gallagher said schools are hurting students by becoming too dependent on technology and keeping them from socializing with their fellow students, teachers and other adults.

"There is just too much with the computer and not enough working with the people themselves," Gallagher said.

FIRST PRIORITY


Gallagher said one of her first priorities if elected would be to make sure South Carolina doesn't entirely abandon the Common Core standards, which outline skills students in kindergarten through 12th grade should learn to be ready for college and careers. She said they just need a few adjustments.

"The superintendent takes over in January, so we need to work through the spring to get the standards out that we want," Gallagher said.

Thompson said his first priority will be to repair relationships with local school districts that he said have suffered under current Education Superintendent Mick Zais.

"Those relationships have been lost. We are not going to be a strong public education system in this state unless we work together," he said.

REPUBLICANS


Neither candidate said whom they would like to face in November. They both said it has been a struggle to raise money in a GOP-dominated state.

"My experience in terms of raising money has been very positive. No, I haven't been that successful in getting it in," Thompson said, smiling. "But making the telephone calls, making the ask is fairly easy."

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