At the end of every school board meeting, Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats has two Advil and a lemon drop waiting for her on the kitchen counter at home.
It’s never been easy serving on the Charleston County School Board with its longstanding reputation for discord and dysfunction. More often than not, all nine members don’t agree — and that’s putting it lightly.
But in the past eight months, the search for the new superintendent has strained the already-tense relationships on the board, starting with the resignation of former superintendent Nancy McGinley in October and culminating in the recent appointment of Gerrita Postlewait as her replacement. Board member Chris Collins refused to attend Postlewait’s first board meeting last week because he wasn’t “ready to digest and swallow this corrupt process.” Michael Miller still maintains the board was interested in making Postlewait superintendent all along. Kate Darby worries the near-constant drama “has taken away from what we should be doing.”
“For a long time, I felt like everyone was working together really well. Even when we don’t agree we still can work together,” Darby said. “There’s been a lot of tension this whole past year, particularly since October.”
The school board has faced tremendous scrutiny over its handling of the superintendent search process, which many have criticized as biased and opaque. As tensions simmered, The Post and Courier requested any written communications and documents related to the search to determine how the process unfolded and when things started to go awry.
Emails between board members show that several trustees had reservations about the process as early as February,when Postlewait’s name first surfaced as a candidate in a closed-door meeting with the S.C. School Boards Association.
“I haven’t been satisfied with the direction of the board since the beginning of this,” said member Tom Ducker. “These things happened and I can’t give people good explanations, and that troubles me.”
Following the board’s 5-4 decision to hire Postlewait earlier this month, elected officials and civic leaders lashed out. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said Postlewait should decline the offer. NAACP Charleston chapter President Dot Scott called the board’s decision “blatantly racist.” In a newspaper op-ed, a cohort of local religious leaders, along with South Carolina poet laureate Marjory Wentworth, called for Coats’ resignation. During her first news conference as the new superintendent, Postlewait extended an invitation to meet with any detractors of the search process and she vowed to “not to let other issues be a distraction.”
“Our goal was not to make everybody happy. Our goal was not to make various groups feel good about what was going on,” Coats said. “Our goal was to find what we knew they wanted — an extraordinary leader to move CCSD forward from where it is today.”
When McGinley resigned in October, Ken Childs called an old colleague, Gerrita Postlewait, and asked her: Was she still interested in coming to Charleston?
A Columbia-based attorney who has represented South Carolina school districts since the 1970s, Childs was hired as outside counsel to help the school board negotiate the terms of McGinley’s resignation contract.
“It’s a superintendent’s market,” Childs said, meaning there’s a limited number of candidates with both the ability and desire to helm the state’s second-largest school district. And in his opinion, Postlewait, a former superintendent of Horry County schools, was one of the most talented in the state.
Among South Carolina education junkies, Postlewait is a well-known leader. She was president of the S.C. Board of Education, member of the governing board of the American Association of School Administrators and named South Carolina’s Superintendent of the Year for her work in Horry County.
Childs, who represents Horry County schools, got to know her in the early 1990s, before she had been promoted to superintendent of that district. He was so impressed with her credentials that sometime in 2004, he and the late Hugh Cannon, a former Charleston County school board member, met with Postlewait to encourage her to apply for the superintendent job in Charleston if the position ever opened up.
“We’re not interviewing you; you’re interviewing us,” Cannon told her.
When Childs called her in October, he said Postlewait told him she was interested, but the timing wasn’t good; her mother’s health was in decline. After her mother died in January, Childs called her again. He said she told him she was still interested — “if it’s a good fit.”
Although Childs insists he wasn’t lobbying for Postlewait to get the job, he worked behind the scenes, inviting select board members to meet with her for casual discussions. At the end of January, she had lunch with Coats, Darby and Chris Staubes. In early February, she had breakfast with Staubes, Todd Garrett, Tripp Wiles and Eric Mack. Her last meeting was a lunch at the end of February with Ducker. Childs was careful to ensure there was never a quorum of the board so the meetings would not violate the Freedom of Information Act.
Notably left out of these meetings were board members Miller and Collins. “It was regrettable,” Childs said, that he didn’t invite Miller and Collins to those meetings, but he denies attempting to exclude them. Miller and Collins had reputations on the board as contrarians, often voting together and in opposition to the majority. They both publicly endorsed the school district’s Deputy Superintendent of Academics Lisa Herring as the next schools superintendent. They also were disappointed when the board elected to make Michael Bobby, the chief financial officer, interim superintendent instead of promoting Herring to the position.
“My sole objective was to see Charleston get an outstanding superintendent that they were happy with, and you never know how these things are going to work out,” Childs said. “(Postlewait) had an upper hand because of her incredible credentials. ...She didn’t push herself on Charleston. I contacted her. Twice.”
On Feb. 23, Childs arranged a meeting between the school board and Paul Krohne, then the executive director of the S.C. School Boards Association. Instead of moving forward with a national search, which can take six to eight months and cost tens of thousands of dollars, Krohne recommended that the board first conduct initial interviews with the district’s two internal candidates: Bobby and Herring. Krohne also mentioned a third name: Postlewait. He told them they ought to consider her for the position, too.
Following Krohne’s advice, in a closed-door meeting on March 3, the board voted 7-2, with Miller and Collins opposed, to develop a set of criteria for the “ideal” superintendent candidate and begin preliminary interviews with Bobby, Herring and Postlewait. The SCSBA started drafting an online survey to gather input from the community on what qualities they wanted in a new superintendent.
But a few board members began to have misgivings about the process, particularly, Postlewait’s inclusion as a candidate alongside Bobby and Herring. Board members started raising concerns about the transparency of the superintendent search on March 20, when the board publicly announced its decision to interview the three candidates, according to emails obtained by The Post and Courier through the state Freedom of Information Act.
“I can understand why we would interview Mike and Lisa without invoking an application process, but not Gerrita,” Ducker wrote in email on March 20. “If we interview Gerrita without opening the position to other outside applicants or identifying the desired criteria for all candidates, we are confirming what some already believe, and that is that the outcome is preordained. I’ll sit out this round. Call me when you’ve selected the final candidate.”
“I said it before and I will say it again, placing GP (Postlewait) on the list with Lisa and Mike is wrong! I believe it is a slap in the face of Mike and Lisa. In my opinion it was out of line and unprofessional for Paul and Ken to drop her name when they did and then for ya’ll to place her name on the list,” responded Miller on March 22. “This is why I voted No! What are we really doing? Do we know?”
And on March 23, Collins questioned why the board would start interviewing candidates without advertising the position or establishing their hiring criteria. “Why would we interview anyone who hasn’t applied for the position? When do we as a board sit down and determine what we are looking for and the kind of person needed to fulfil our mission? There shouldn’t be any interviews before we establish our criteria and our goal. We are off the mark and headed for a lawsuit,” he wrote. “This is not private hiring where we hand pick a candidate and exclude the community. We are making ourselves look very deceptive and dishonest.”
The board was soon forced to change direction.
On March 26, Herring informed board members she was a semifinalist for superintendent of Birmingham (Alabama) City Schools. A day later, Bobby announced he was dropping out of the race. The school board convened again on April 6 and elected to conduct a full-scale national search for candidates with SCSBA at a cost of more than $20,000. Coats was the only member who voted against the plan.
Postlewait kept her prior commitment and still met with the board for a preliminary interview on April 8, while Herring bowed out “to honor the protocol of a national search process” and formally apply for the position, she said in a letter to the board.
Meanwhile, Ducker was still feeling uneasy about his February lunch with Postlewait. At the time, it seemed innocuous enough. And he said he didn’t know six other board members had also met with her. He had already made up his mind about the kind of candidate he was looking for — someone with a business background — and Postlewait wasn’t it. So Ducker told Miller about his lunch with Postlewait.
About a month later, in a private meeting, Miller confronted the rest of the board, demanding to know who else had met with her before she had been named a candidate.
He got his answer and on May 18, Miller held a press conference revealing his discovery. He called the process “tainted” and said Postlewait should be disqualified as a candidate due to her “unfair advantage.”
Miller’s revelation drew ire from many black community leaders, including Scott and the Rev. Joseph Darby of the Charleston NAACP, who felt Herring, who is black, had been overlooked throughout the process due to her race. They accused the board members who previously met with Postlewait of violating open-meeting laws and demanded their resignation.
While the board waited for the application period to close, Coats personally solicited feedback via email from about two dozen stakeholder groups, including the NAACP, Charleston Teacher Alliance and every district constituent board. When the results of the SCSBA’s community survey were in, board members drafted their criteria. The SCSBA used the board’s criteria to choose nine semifinalists. After the board completed interviews with them over Skype, Postlewait emerged in the top three again, along with Herring and Terri Breeden of Virginia.
Several board members, including Darby and Garrett, who voted to hire Postlewait, said their early meetings with her ultimately didn’t sway their decision. And Garrett noted that he had early conversations with other potential applicants for the job.
“(I don’t know) who was trying to put Gerrita in front of everybody,” Garrett said. “Obviously, she rose to the top, but she did not have a solid five votes until the last week.”
“I didn’t make a decision on who I thought was the best candidate until the end of the third interview,” Darby said.
“I had conversations with Dr. Herring. I don’t know how that’s different than having conversations with Dr. Postlewait,” she added. “It was just a meeting. We have lots of meetings. I don’t think we did anything wrong.”
Although many of her colleagues on the board, including Garrett and Ducker, now believe that the board should have started with a national search in retrospect, Coats doesn’t think she would do anything differently.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” she said. “I regret that people are still upset, but I don’t know that I wouldn’t have said, ‘Hey, let’s look at this casual concept first.’ It worked really well in 2007. It got Dr. McGinley. And I don’t regret that we said we’re smart enough and we care enough about education as a board to say, ‘You know, we’re out of our depth. We need professional organization and guidance in this.’”
And she’s confident that the board will move on from this controversy.
“We do have strong beliefs and strong cores and I think that’s what keeps us moving to the right conversation,” she said. “You know what’s the best healer of all? A great school year.”
Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.