Parents can expect stronger teachers in low-performing schools, further pay raises for teachers, and a shake-up of Charleston County School District's expansive system of school choice in the wake of Tuesday's elections, newly re-elected board member Kate Darby said.
Voters delivered victories to Darby and two other incumbent board members.
The board selects its chair every November, and Darby said she plans to seek another year overseeing the nine-member body at the next meeting.
Her focus, she said, will be on a series of reports commissioned by the district that highlighted profound inequities between white and black students, and between rich and poor schools.
"We’ll have some schools that will probably have two teachers in a classroom, we’ll look at some strong incentives for strong teachers to go to underperforming schools, and we’ll have the best principals possible in those schools," Darby said Wednesday.
But after a hard-fought race that saw two of the state's billionaires backing incumbents, including Darby, the Rev. Eric Mack, and Cindy Bohn Coats, some parents and teachers remain unconvinced that the board will deliver.
"They made a lot of promises, and the voters now need to make them accountable to those promises," said Alexander Fox, a parent of students in the district and co-founder of the advocacy group Flip the Board.
Discontented after years of lackluster student performance and administrative shake-ups that infuriated teachers, Fox's group threw its support behind an insurgent slate of former Charleston County educators. They all lost their races after being vastly outspent by the outside interest group.
While the district is on track to raise its base teacher salary to $40,000 by 2020, Darby made a more ambitious claim on the campaign trail this fall, prompted by a challenge from the fiery West Ashley candidate Francis Marion Beylotte III: Starting pay should really be $50,000.
In debates where candidate Paul Padron called the board out for failing to raise the cap on annual teacher salaries, Darby also has adopted the position that the cap should be higher.
Darby said Wednesday she did not have a plan for funding such pay increases. She said the district would likely have to address some funding and restrictions imposed by the state.
Another hot-button issue in the election was the district's expansive system of school choice, which includes many magnet, partial magnet and charter schools.
While some candidates traced the choice movement's roots back to white flight and segregation, pointing to the hollowing-out of majority-black neighborhood schools, the three incumbents took moderate stances, saying the school choice system should change so more students have access to quality schools.
"I hear from people that they want to increase or improve or add to what we offer in neighborhood schools," Darby said, "and I hear from people who want to expand the choice offerings because their kids will benefit from that. I think we’ve got to find a balance."
The district currently has extreme inequality, including some of the state's best-performing and worst-performing schools.
The basis of any changes, Darby said, will be three documents that have garnered some discussion on the school board this year: The district's strategic plan, the Clemson diversity study that called on the district to finally integrate its schools, and the recent accreditation report from AdvancED that called on the district to adopt more rigorous curricula and distribute resources more equitably "to meet the needs of all students."
Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait cited the same three documents when asked Wednesday what she hopes to accomplish in the next two years.
"The mission of Charleston County Schools, to ensure that each student leaves our system with positive life options, should remain unchanged regardless of election outcomes," Postlewait told The Post and Courier.
This week's election marked a decisive victory for incumbents Darby, Mack and Coats, who each faced off against several candidates and an energized base of parents upset with the district's direction. Charleston County has made slow academic progress overall, and some of Postlewait's decisions on teacher evaluations and principal placement sparked mass protests last year.
When the Charleston Teacher Alliance surveyed its members in late 2017, they expressed no great love for her or the board. Both earned marks below 2.0 on a 4-point scale, rating them less than "minimally effective."
Jody Stallings, a Moultrie Middle School English teacher and leader of the Charleston Teacher Alliance, said many teachers were disappointed to see that no Charleston County educators won Tuesday.
While the Charleston Teacher Alliance did not endorse any candidates, one of Flip the Board's chosen candidates came close to winning: Jake Rambo, a former Mount Pleasant principal who earned the group's endorsement, lost by a slim margin of just 1,476 votes to Joyce Green, a human resources consultant.
"Having worked with the board, I know a portion of them is interested in listening to teachers and seeking our perspective on critical issues," Stallings said. "For those that have demonstrated less interest, I hope they will use their re-election to grow into the kind of leaders that seek input from those who are in the foxholes, doing battle against ignorance and apathy every day."
One unique facet of this year's campaign was the emergence of the Charleston Coalition for Kids, an advocacy group that included well-connected political leaders and two education-minded billionaires, Anita Zucker and Ben Navarro.
The group poured loads of untraceable money into television ads, targeted Facebook ads, glossy mailers, targeted text messages and signs and seemed to vastly outspend any candidate. The group's spokesman has refused to say how much it spent.
"Ultimately, it comes down to this: The Coalition for Kids spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure that nobody who knows what's actually happening in schools sits on the school board," Fox said.
Quality Education Project co-founder and education professor Jon Hale said the lasting effect of groups like the Coalition for Kids could be on the power balance of school board elections. In two years, Charleston board members the Rev. Chris Collins, Kevin Hollinshead, Todd Garrett and Priscilla Jeffery will be up for re-election.
"They’ve not only selected their slate," Hale said of the coalition, "but they’ve infused hundreds of thousands of dollars into the election — which means you have to have wealth to make your voice heard."