Coats defends schools’ decision

During a press conference at Charity Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev. Nelson Rivers addressed his concerns with the Charleston County School Board’s superintendent hiring process.

Charleston County School District Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats responded to accusations Wednesday that the district disrespected the city’s African-American community by neglecting to postpone superintendent candidate interviews in the wake of a mass shooting at a historically black downtown church.

In a letter addressed to the Rev. Nelson Rivers, a prominent civil rights activist and pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church, Coats defended her decision to proceed with previously scheduled interviews following the June 17 slaying of nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church.

“All parties involved and contacted agreed that we needed to proceed with the interviews and then step away to properly mourn,” she wrote. “You disagree and judge us based on that decision; that is your right. I applaud the strength of each person who agreed to meet their obligation — particularly our CCSD staff and the candidates.”

“Yet, you do not use your voice to praise the elected officials who, with heavy hearts, continued to meet their responsibilities and then (like board members) rush back to attend wakes, send cards, and attend funerals,” the letter continued. “Today, it is your silence that is speaking the loudest.”

On Monday, Rivers emailed an open letter to Coats and the Charleston County School Board, saying board members had “reached a new low” when they proceeded last week with interviews and community receptions with superintendent finalists Terri Breeden, Lisa Herring and Gerrita Postlewait.

“Your level of insensitivity and disregard for the Black community is amazing,” Rivers wrote. “How could you, as a group, expect the necessary participation from the Black community, clergy and other leaders on last week so soon after the brutal murder of our family and friends? Was it arrogance? Why did you go forward with such a plan?”

Coats, who did not return multiple phone calls requesting comment from The Post and Courier on Tuesday and Wednesday, emailed her response to Rivers, local members of the media and the Charleston chapter of the NAACP on Wednesday morning.

In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Rivers stood by his assertion that many members of the African-American community were excluded from the district’s meet-and-greets with the finalists as they mourned the dead. Those people including some school district staff and families. The last funeral for a victim of the Emanuel AME shootings was Tuesday.

Rivers is now asking the school board to consider letting black clergy members host public forums with the three candidates on the evenings of July 21, 22 and 23. Rivers and several black clergy members have volunteered their churches as venues in downtown Charleston, West Ashley and North Charleston. His request includes a meeting with the board on July 27, so clergy members can report their feedback and recommendations.

After receiving her letter, Rivers said he spoke to Coats and she agreed to present his proposal to the rest of the school board Thursday morning, when members are scheduled to meet and discuss the superintendent candidates.

Coats’ response to Rivers appears to have inflamed racial tension between members of the school board and black civil rights leaders in Charleston. The Rev. Leonard O. Griffin, pastor of Morris Street Baptist Church, and Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott have added their voices to the fray through letters to the school board, too.

In October, Nancy McGinley resigned as superintendent for firing and subsequently rehiring the football coach at Academic Magnet High School over what many denounced as a racially offensive postgame victory ritual. When the school board made the district’s chief financial officer Michael Bobby her temporary replacement, Rivers and Charleston NAACP leaders cried foul. They felt Herring, then the district’s chief academic officer, had been overlooked because of her race.

The Rev. Chris Collins and Michael Miller, two of the three black members on the nine-member board, have publicly endorsed Herring, the current deputy superintendent of academics, as the next schools superintendent. They both refused to attend Postlewait’s interview with the school board last Monday following revelations that each of the six white board members privately met or spoke with Postlewait months before she had been named a candidate. Collins and Miller called on Postlewait, a former Horry County superintendent, to withdraw her name.

Collins said he found Coats’ letter to Rivers personally disrespectful. “It’s that sense of arrogance that’s gotten us where we are today — not understanding the needs of minorities or needs of poor people in the community,” Collins said. “(Rivers) represents hundreds of people, if not thousands. She’s offended everybody.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.