Ten candidates for four seats on the Charleston County School Board spoke frankly about magnet schools, racism and teacher pay in a forum Tuesday night.

Eleven candidates in all have entered the Nov. 6 school board race, and all were invited to the forum hosted by the Quality Education Project at the International Longshoremen's Association Hall.

In East Cooper, four candidates are running for two seats on the board: Kate Darby (incumbent), Joyce Green, Sarah Shad Johnson and Jake Rambo.

In North Charleston, three candidates are running for one seat: Cindy Bohn Coats (incumbent), Linda Mosley Lucas and Vivian Sheppard Pettigrew. Pettigrew was absent from the forum.

And in West Ashley, four candidates are competing for one seat: Francis Marion Beylotte III, Herbert Fielding, the Rev. Eric L. Mack (incumbent) and Paul H. Padron.

While candidates must live in the area they seek to represent, all county residents can choose up to four — one from West Ashley, one from North Charleston and two from East Cooper.

East Cooper candidates

The Quality Education Project prepared a series of questions about the future of school choice, racism in the school district, and issues of teacher pay and morale. School choice in particular has been a hot-button issue in the district, where more than a third of students attended a magnet or charter school last school year.

Notably, none of the candidates directly addressed a controversial recommendation from a recent diversity study produced by Clemson researchers: Redrawing school attendance zones "to minimize the wide range of differences in poverty levels."

Darby, the current board chair who has worked as a funeral home director, said she was running on the same platform as she did four years ago when she was first elected. While some choice schools are working to close achievement gaps among students, Darby said, "A lot of our choice schools, whether they be magnet or charters, are segregated or don't reflect the makeup of the county, or don't reflect the makeup of their area, and I want to see that change." She later added, "I think we could narrow down some of the choice options that we have in the partial-magnet process." Darby said she supports raising teacher pay and pointed to her support for a three-year plan that set aside funds to raise starting teacher pay to $40,000 by 2020.

Green, who has worked in human resources consulting, said she supports children getting a quality education, "whatever form that comes in." She said she supports paying teachers for performance, despite some failed attempts to enact versions of that policy in the past, and noted that it is "sad" that the district is still needing to discuss racism, but it needs to be addressed.

Johnson is a current member of the District 2 Constituent School Board. She said she would work to create more accountability and transparency in the district-sponsored charter schools, and to apply lessons learned from those schools to the traditional neighborhood schools. On the subject of racism, she said she wants all nine members of the school board to attend racial equity classes hosted by the local YWCA. She also advocated for evidence-based policies like smaller classroom sizes, increased parent involvement, and "teacher evaluations that go beyond test scores."

Rambo is the former principal of James B. Edwards Elementary in Mount Pleasant, where he resigned in protest in June 2017 amid district-wide protests about changes in teacher evaluations and relocation of principals. He said he wanted to "stop all the ridiculous bickering" at school board meetings. On the subject of choice schools, he said he would like to evaluate them in terms of student performance and fiscal responsibility. (Under state law, currently the only mechanism for school boards to hold charter schools accountable is to approve or revoke their charters.)

North Charleston, West Ashley candidates

Coats, an incumbent who previously served as board chair, said she would like to create more opportunities for teachers to meet with state legislators and advocate for change. She said the district will need to address funding inequities created by state law. On the topic of school choice, she said a child's ZIP code should not determine her educational style, and that kids should have access to arts-infused or STEM-focused education. However, she said the district approved too many partial-magnet programs at elementary schools in the early 2010s, when it incentivized them by offering additional funding and teachers at schools that came up with a specialty program.

Lucas is retired after working for more than 40 years in education, including as a speech clinician, school counselor and parent educator. She said students' regular neighborhood school should be their first choice and become "like a city on a hill," a place where students would be proud to attend. "Changes begin with a change in the climate of the school board. I am a climate changer," Lucas said. She said she backs increasing teacher pay and offering other benefits, like support for continuing education or even gym memberships.

Beylotte has worked in clinical research involving pediatric and adult mental health. He said many student behavior issues can be traced back to mental health issues and said schools can do more to address those problems. He criticized the term "school choice" as "Orwellian doublespeak" and traced its roots to white flight in the wake of school integration. He raised some eyebrows in the room by saying he wanted to raise starting teacher pay to $50,000.

Fielding is a retired employee of the Employment Security Commission. He said the district should stop spending money on new facilities for magnet schools and start housing any new ones inside existing schools. He said the district has moved back toward resegregating its schools. "The reality is it takes a concerted effort. ... We need to integrate our system," Fielding said.

Mack is a pastor and current vice chair of the school board. He said his priorities would include raising teacher salaries, providing adequate resources in every classroom, and ensuring safety in all schools. He said he would like to see more professional development for teachers to help them understand differences between cultures.

Padron is a retired educator who has worked as a teacher and administrator at numerous schools including Morningside Middle, Haut Gap Middle and Deer Park Middle. He said the district should remove barriers that keep some students from attending magnet schools, such as allowing students to audition for School of the Arts using hip-hop dance instead of classical ballet. He said the current plan to improve teacher pay is "not enough" and that the district needs to treat teachers with respect, starting with transparency about their evaluations and a reduction in their class sizes.

Outside groups

With about a month to go until Election Day, the school board race has attracted interest from several activist groups.

The forum was hosted by the Quality Education Project, a local advocacy group founded by education professors Jon Hale and Millicent Brown. The group has been broadly critical of the school district's push for school choice, particularly charter schools, which QEP regards as a step toward school privatization. 

A separate group called Flip the Board organized a candidates' forum last month at the ILA Hall — but only invited non-incumbents.

"The incumbents have name recognition, and they’ve had years to present themselves to the public. It’s a very crowded race," said group organizer Alexander Fox, a parent in Charleston County.

The group describes itself as a grassroots organization with no outside funding or paid employees. The group has endorsed Rambo, Padron, Pettigrew and Johnson in the November election, emphasizing the candidates' experience working in the field of education.

A third group, the Charleston Coalition for Kids, was founded by some of the area's most well-connected business and political leaders, including the mayors of Charleston and North Charleston and the president of the Charleston NAACP. It also includes businessman Ben Navarro, founder of Meeting Street Schools; and Anita Zucker, a businesswoman and education philanthropist who created the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative.

The Coalition has announced its endorsement of Mack, Coats, Darby and Green. All of the group's endorsed candidates are incumbents except for Green.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.