Dorchester 2 could get fiscal autonomy with single-member districts

Residents of Dorchester District 2, lined up in a hallway outside a board meeting in May, staged a sit-in to urge the district to change to single-member districts.

Dorchester District 2 might get financial independence from County Council within a few years, but the measure is tied to changing the way the board is elected.

The new measure would mean school board members are elected from single-member districts instead of the current at-large system, a method that could mean more minorities fill the seats.

The current board has not included a minority for five years even though about a third of the district’s 24,000 students are minorities.

State representatives Chris Murphy and Patsy Knight filed a bill earlier this month that would allow District 2 and District 4 in the upper part of the county to have fiscal autonomy. The bill received first reading June 3 and has been placed on the House’s calendar for January.

Currently, Dorchester County has two of 25 school districts in the state that have to present their budgets to county council each year for approval.

“(Fiscal autonomy) has always come up when the school districts make their presentations to County Council,” said Murphy, a former county councilman. “I’m not in favor of allowing fiscal autonomy without single-member districts.”

Six of the district’s seven board members live near the center of Summerville.

The bill would also require the district to have a forensic audit to “ensure finances are in order,” Murphy said.

Dorchester 2 Board Chairwoman Gail Hughes welcomes the opportunity for the district to approve its own budget.

“We are the ones that work with our budget on a daily basis and we know what we need,” the Summerville resident said. “I don’t feel (the current system) is fair. You have to have people who are involved in our budget consistently. It’s hard to go to somebody not working with it daily and get them to understand what we need.”

County Council this week approved a tax increase for District 2 — the first since 2010 — but denied a similar request from District 4.

The bill to give Dorchester 2 control of its budget includes the caveat that board members be elected by single-member districts. They are currently elected at-large in what Murphy called a popularity contest.

Dorchester 4 already has single-member districts.

Changing the election method in Dorchester 2 has been talked about a lot recently but hasn’t received much support, Hughes said. At a May board meeting, she said the change was inevitable but she prefers at-large elections.

“I think it works great the way it is,” she said Thursday. “I just don’t want to put ourselves in a position to where we’re fighting for part of our children. We need to be there for all children.”

Several board members said at that May meeting they agreed. Board member Barbara Crosby, who lives in Summerville, said the school district doesn’t need to make a change until the U.S. Justice Department requires it.

Community activist Louis Smith disagrees.

“The way its structured now is not representative of the entire community,” he said.

He supports the bill, but wishes the two issues weren’t tied together.

“It would be really nice if it was a clean, clear bill for single-member districts,” he said. “I welcome fiscal autonomy. I believe they should be the ones doing their budget but by the same token it’s not a compromise. I believe in fiscal autonomy as well as single-member districts.”

Smith, who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2012 and 2014, feels the at-large method has kept minorities off the board.

Harry Blake was the last black school board member, but he lost a bid for re-election in 2010.

To make his point, Smith planned a sit-in he called Operation Equal Representation at the May board meeting. He brought with him about 25 folks, many wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, who sang “We Shall Overcome.”

During public comments at that meeting, Smith called the at-large election method “an elitist vestige of the Jim Crow era.” Board members said the change would be up to the legislature.

“My group gave the school board an opportunity to say, ‘We believe in diversity and it’s time for a change.’ Instead they clammed up and passed the ball,” Smith said.

Hughes said she doesn’t believe the at-large method has kept minorities from getting elected.

“We’ve had several minorities on the board,” she said. “To be on the board, you’ve got to work hard. You’ve got to go out there and make yourself known. You have to go out there and do what you have to do to get elected regardless of race or nationality.”

The current board not only does not have minorities, it also does not adequately reflect the district’s population, Smith said. Six of seven board members live in the town of Summerville and the Dorchester Road corridor, but other growing areas have no representation.

“Anybody that wants to run is able to run,” Hughes said. “I don’t believe there are people in that area that are really interested in running.”

But residents and other elected officials said that is not the case.

“I think we should have a board member from this area,” said Coosaw Creek resident Jess Dunbar. “The population has moved out this way but we have nobody on the school board to fight for us.”

Hughes also is concerned about a lack of competition that single-member districts could create.

“There may just be one person in a district that’s running,” she said. “You could get a person who really doesn’t have the children’s interests at heart.”

If passed, the bill could take effect for the 2016 election cycle, when board members Crosby, Lisa Tupper and Sam Clark are up for re-election, Murphy said. The district would have fiscal autonomy after the 2018 elections, when the remaining four board seats move to districts. District 4 will have fiscal autonomy in 2016.

Berkeley County school board members are elected by district. In Charleston County members represent districts but are elected by a countywide vote.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.