GEORGETOWN COUNTY — Candidates are vying for four contested seats on the Georgetown County School District Board of Education with Election Day just under two weeks away.
Voters will head to the polls Nov. 3 — or vote absentee prior to Election Day — as school Districts 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are up for election. The District 4 seat is the only unopposed seat, with only incumbent Randy Walker seeking reelection.
The Post and Courier Myrtle Beach & Georgetown Times reached out to each candidate with a list of the same questions to answer for this story.
Representative Sarah Elliott, who has served on school board the last 10 years, will not seek reelection. Now, candidates Patti Hammel and Amanda Darden are competing for the seat.
Hammel, who recently retired after 51 years as an educator, said she believes she has the expertise, experience and wisdom to make sound decisions.
“Our students in Georgetown County, including two of my grandchildren, deserve programs of study that address the needs of all of our students in order for them to reach their goals and dreams,” Hammel said. “I am a candidate for this position to be a champion for children, an advocate for teachers, accountable to stakeholders and always to take safety and security very seriously.”
Originally from West Virginia, Hammel taught in her hometown before moving to Virginia, where she was named teacher of the year. Hammel moved to South Carolina more than 20 years ago and retired from Georgetown County schools as the executive director of federal programs and student performance. She and her husband Trev are the parents of an educator and a nurse practitioner and the grandparents of seven children.
The top three areas the district can improve in, Hammel said, include making improvements in core instruction, enhancing and expanding career and technology and expanding advanced placement courses.
“All of these needs must be accomplished while perusing the budget as we move forward,” Hammel said. “It is important that we consider using the current level of funding effectively.”
When it comes to safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Hammel said the district has laid out a “very good plan” for safety.
“As we look at moving to ‘prime’ instruction it becomes very important that each school has a defined plan in place to ensure parents that all of the safeguards are provided,” Hammel said. “Communication is vital. Parents must be sure that students who attend school are well. School personnel must be very cognizant of their own health. Consistent cleanliness is vital. Bus safety does require extra personnel. All protocol must be followed.”
Darden, a parent of former and current students in GCSD, said she decided to run for school board because she feels that she is in a place where she can give back to the schools to help future students. Darden and her husband are the parents of three teenagers and she said her family loves life at the beach.
She serves as the director of the Center for Excellence, academic advising and student services in the Spadoni College of Education at Coastal Carolina University.
The top three areas the district can improve in, Darden said, are complacency and status quo, the early college high school track and allocation of resources and funding.
“To better prepare our students to be both college and career ready, I would propose each high school have a college and career readiness center, by redirecting district office resources to the points of contact for students and community,” she said. “Centers will facilitate student opportunities and readiness for college and/or career alternatives through community partnerships, internships, and placements. The center will facilitate specialized training in ever changing and contemporary areas such as technology, military, communication, and interpersonal skills.”
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Darden said GCSD staff and students are doing an “excellent job” to ensure schools are safe.
“This is their job of which they are doing a great job at so we, as school board members, should support and help them with anything they might need to keep moving forward the plans that have been cautiously prepared for these times of uncertainty,” she said. “I have spoken with quite a few administrators over the past few weeks and the (No. 1) theme that has emerged is that very rarely are school board members seen in the school buildings and to me, that is a problem. I would be certain as a school board member that I visit the schools and help the teachers, support staff, and administrators know that I am there to listen to them and help make their jobs more successful for them. This, to me, is crucial in developing those strong partnerships with the schools in which we serve as school board members.”
Incumbent Sandra Johnson faces opposition this election from Ramona Staggers-McCullough.
Johnson, who has served on the Georgetown County school board since 2008, said she is running for reelection in hopes of seeing the completion of the district’s 2016 bond referendum for long term planning.
Johnson said her hopes for the school district is to see students become graduates based on the profile of the South Carolina Graduate.
“It means our students will attain world class knowledge - language arts and math for career and college readiness; world class skills-critical thinking, teamwork, and technology; and life and career characteristics- integrity, work ethic, and interpersonal skills,” Johnson said. “Our students are achieving their goals even during this difficult time.”
Johnson is a retired lab/x-y technologist, whose hobby is sewing, she said.
Staggers-McCullough did not respond to messages asking for comment.
Candidates Bill Gaskins and Johnny Wilson and vying for the vacant seat.
Gaskins, associate director at Helping Hands of Georgetown County, said he is running for school board to be an advocate for students and teachers, as well as district leadership accountability.
If elected, Gaskins said he will hold the board and superintendent accountable to make decisions based on what is best for all students in the county.
“For many years the public has witnessed decisions about what is best for adults especially when it comes to nepotism and hiring practices,” he said. “Politics should not be involved in district decision making.”
In addition, Gaskins said it is essential to revisit each system the district has in place to support teachers.
“We need a system to help all teachers to reach excellence in teaching and learning,” he said. “All of our teachers have the art of teaching but we need to support them as they polish their craft as teachers.”
Gaskins said district leadership has implemented a “great plan” when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t see a necessary change in the near future,” he said. “However, the plan should be revisited periodically.”
Gaskins said he has 30 years of education experience, with 21 of those years being classroom experience and nine in district leadership.
He and his wife Martha have two children who are graduates of Andrews High School.
Wilson, who is still listed as an active candidate, did not return messages for comment.
The District 6 seat is also vacant, with three candidates running for the seat: Vincent Davis, Lynne Ford and Ronald Thompson.
Davis said the top three areas he would focus on are ensuring students are workforce ready, funding the career center and staff pay. Davis is the president of the Pawleys Island Civic Club, chairman of Midnight Basketball and assistant chef at Drunken Jacks restaurant in Murrells Inlet. He and his wife and the parents of four children.
Ford is a health and wellness entrepreneur, author and serves as communications manager for Holy Cross Faith Memorial Episcopal Church in Pawleys Island. Ford said her background — which spans the industrial, academic, communications, and nonprofit sector, coupled with 20+ years of local community service, both within the schools where my children attended and throughout Georgetown County — makes her the perfect candidate.
Ford said the district can improve in areas of communication, transparency and accountability.
“I believe the district has been working on its communications, but greater effort needs to go towards strengthening communications between the district and its stakeholders and widely communicate an annual performance report of schools, the superintendent, and the school board, for starters,” Ford said. She said she would tackle these issues two ways, by exploring and identifying “various information channels to strengthen communications year-round, not just during times of crisis.” and do her “homework and listen.”
“The best way to know what is important to the people I serve is to listen to their ideas and experiences,” she said.
Currently serving on the GCSD Reopening Schools Task Force, Ford said the safety of the students is of the utmost concern of Superintendent Keith Price. Ford is continuing to work with the task force as the district navigates the pandemic.
Ford and her husband Johnny, a pastor at House of God Church, are the parents of three sons, who all went through Georgetown County schools.
Candidate Thompson did not return messages requesting comment.