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Dorchester 2 school board candidates differ on funding, election methods

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Desks are set up inside fifth grade teacher Vanessa Mijango's classroom at Joseph Pye Elementary School on Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020, in Ladson. File/Gavin McIntyre/ Staff

SUMMERVILLE — Once a quiet vacation spot and retirement community, the region has grown into a hub of housing and development. 

While manufacturing has brought thousands of new jobs, the resulting influx of families has put a strain on the school system. 

Last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education statewide, nearly all of the district’s six middle schools were either at or near capacity.

And that's what the nine candidates running for three open seats on the Dorchester District 2 School Board are facing.

They include three incumbents: Barbara Crosby, a retired educator; Lisa Tupper, vice president of G Tupper III Construction; and Evan Guthrie, an attorney.

Their challengers are DD2 parent Ashley Wimberly, lawyer Chris Digby, state sales finance manager Frankie Staropoli, ECPI University campus president James Weaver, community activist Louis Smith and Brooks Moore, a retired district principal.

Almost all the candidates said they approved of the district’s plan to reopen schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that schools are open, the next big hurdle the new board will need to address is how schools will make up for the learning loss students experienced in the spring. 

But there are other issues, as well. 

Almost all the candidates said the district, which currently is required to submit its annual budget to Dorchester County Council for approval, needs fiscal autonomy moving forward.

Others differ widely on how DD2 board members should be elected. Under the existing system, candidates are elected at large, meaning every board member represents the entire district and all residents across the county can vote to elect them.

Some community members have been fighting for years to pass legislation that would allow the DD2 board to switch from at-large seats to single-member districts, meaning school board members will be elected only by the people who live in their geographic district.

Advocates feel the measure will boost accountability and will increase diversity on the DD2 board.

All seven of the sitting board members are White, but nearly half of the district's students are minorities. 

DD2’s seven-member board is responsible for overseeing some 25,000 students, 3,000 employees, and 25 schools and education sites. Members are elected to serve four year terms and receive $600 monthly compensation.

The Post and Courier recently sent questions to each candidate. Their responses have been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

In recent months, the district has been forced to redraw school attendance lines and shuffle students around to reduce overcrowding at some of the district’s most heavily populated schools. Do you support a tax increase, bond referendum or developer fees to fund the construction of new school buildings?

Crosby: I do not support a tax increase. Impact fees need to be reimplemented. Another option would be to implement a penny tax, which could help alleviate school financial burdens.

Digby: I support working closely with elected officials to find creative solutions that will keep taxes as low as possible, but education should be the highest priority for our tax dollars.

Guthrie: Yes to impact fees on new homes to let growth pay for growth. DD2 funded construction of a new middle school this year using impact fees without a bond referendum. No to a new bond referendum.

Moore: If elected I support an impact fee and a 1 percent sales tax referendum to go for school construction only. The biggest asset DD2 has is the school system.

Smith: I was the first candidate in this race to highlight the issue of overcrowding in DD2 schools. We need voluntary fees on new homes being built rather than a forced property tax countywide increase.

Staropoli: Funding formulas need to be rectified, and the issue is more allocation than funding. Until this is resolved, the best solution would be the most minimal impact to taxpayers through developer fees.

Tupper: We will need to look at many sources to fund necessary facility construction and renovations so that the tax burden is small and spread out among many to minimize the impact on any one group.

Weaver: I support the current model of the bond referendum for capital projects. Currently, tax increases are required to fund our schools, however, we have to develop a balance to the funding formula.

Wimberly: I support all options being on the table to help the district meet its needs. But as we have seen with virtual academy and those who chose it, we need more innovation in adding capacity first.

Legislators recently passed a measure to convert seats on the Charleston County School Board from at-large positions to single-member districts. Would you support converting the DD2 board seats to single-member districts?

Crosby: I have no problem with single districts. But at-large, we are allowed to equally represent and meet the needs of each child regardless of ZIP code.

Digby: I do not think it's necessary at this time, as DD2 has historically prospered using the current model allowing voters to choose the seven best candidates. If changing is necessary for fiscal autonomy, I support it.

Guthrie: No to single-member districts as the district is small enough geographically so each board member is able to represent the entire district and not one school or area, and all students win as a result.

Moore: Yes, I am for single-member districts.

Smith: The Dorchester County Legislative Delegation voted alongside their peers in the state Legislature to pass "single-member districts" for Charleston County, so why can't they do the same here? I am for!

Staropoli: I would support single-member districts for DD2 as it would provide specific representation for focused districts. This would be accompanied by two requirements of merging with DD4 and fiscal autonomy.

Tupper: No. Single-member districts encourage "have" and "have-not" schools; at-large positions elevate all schools. DD2 schools are all "have" schools with the current system, each raised to the same standard.

Weaver: I support single-member districts, which would provide representation from communities throughout our district. The state delegation would drive this process and determine the best path forward.

Wimberly: I believe single-member districts would bring more accountability. It would create more voter engagement and ultimately be better in holding our elected school board members accountable.

Schools across the state have been disrupted by COVID-19. How would you assess DD2’s efforts to safely resume instruction during the pandemic?

Crosby: DD2 is fully equipped with PPE for all students, administration and staff. Districts have been mandated by the governor to follow DHEC guidelines for reopening.

Digby: DD2 has stood behind its claim that it puts the health and safety of its students/teachers first. I do not agree with the risk assessment, but I am not an epidemiologist.

Guthrie: The district has a researched and flexible plan that was able to maximize student safety and delivery of education. The district worked tirelessly to get students back in the classroom the right way.

Moore: DD2 has done an excellent job dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Their decisions for the most part have been based on science instead of politicians.

Smith: Safety for both students, teachers and faculty has to be kept in mind when reopening. I have said that parents need a choice of five days face-to-face learning or 100 percent virtual, much like Berkeley County.

Staropoli: The state is opening back up all over. We have to resume our children's education. We cannot communicate it is not safe to be in school, but open high school football and partial days.

Tupper: Education and safety of all is the focus in a flexible plan with hybrid and an all-virtual learning option. Face-to-face learning is best; we need to work toward that keeping safety in mind.

Weaver: Our school district developed a plan following the case-numbers in our community. I would assist in developing a task force including subject matter experts who can develop a plan for a safe return.

Wimberly: The plan DD2 presented was based on the information they had at the time. I am concerned that it had no flexibility to offer safe alternatives for children who need more face-to-face instruction.

Dorchester District 2 is one 25 school districts in the state that have to present their budgets to county council each year for approval. Do you support fiscal autonomy for DD2?

Crosby: Yes, I support fiscal autonomy. We have CPAs who are qualified to know our internal operations and finances. Obtaining fascial autonomy is not up to the board; it's decided by legislative delegation.

Digby: The most important service our local governments offer is education. We have an elected board of trustees. Elected officials should be able to handle budget responsibility and accountability.

Guthrie: Yes, so the district can function in basic needs like teacher salaries but not as a rubber stamp to raise taxes each year. A fair state funding formula would make fiscal autonomy unnecessary for DD2.

Moore: I support fiscal autonomy for DD2. Fiscal autonomy is a must to deal with growth.

Smith: According to the most recent report from 2018, DD2 is the third most indebted district in the state. DD2 asks for property tax increases every year. We need fiscally responsible board members.

Staropoli: I do support fiscal autonomy as this would help transparency and responsible practice. This would also be a requirement for single-member districts along with a district merger.

Tupper: Yes, we know the district’s needs and where to spend for the most impact. It would hold us accountable for how we spend money. Raising millage rates should be done after much careful thought.

Wimberly: I support fiscal autonomy. It would allow the board to create a budget effectively, and it would make school board members more accountable to those who elect them.

Weaver: I support fiscal autonomy for DD2. When elected, I will ensure the school board will be good stewards of the budget and funding models for our schools.

How do you plan to address the academic achievement gap between wealthy students and low-income students in DD2?

Crosby: Rollings Middle School has received a national award for closing the academic achievement gap. Programs in DD2 give every child the opportunity to be successful, regardless of social economic status.

Digby: Regardless of income, the biggest difference I saw as a teacher between high- and low-performing students was reading skills. That's where we start. A thorough answer won't fit in 200 characters.

Guthrie: DD2 works hard to ensure that there is no achievement gap in students within individual schools or schools within the district as resources and attention are carefully allotted so every student wins.

Moore: To close the achievement gap we must put our best teachers in at-risk schools, provide tutoring, a hotline for parental assistance, use majority of class time for reading and math, and peer tutoring.

Smith: I will serve as an advocate for low-income students to have more opportunities and choices like we are doing now through charter schools or our learning resource labs all around the Lowcountry.

Staropoli: Partnering with our community businesses and partners to ensure resources are available to any child in need, not just income based. Income should not be a factor in children's opportunities to learn.

Tupper: Support individualized instruction based on the needs of each student, use of effective/experienced teachers to teach them, and provide mentoring and broad exposure to experiences and opportunities.

Weaver: You will only truly address achievement gaps if you close those gaps in primary grades, pre-K through third grade. When you have a system that intentionally closes gaps at pre-K through third grade, it will diminish over time.

Wimberly: Increasing parent, family and community involvement is the key first step. We must look beyond the school door and empower our families and community to be involved to improve students’ outcomes.

What do you believe is the most overlooked or ignored issue facing the school district?

Crosby: I am unaware of any areas which have been overlooked or ignored. Realizing there will always be room for improvement, I would suggest better communication. DD2 is vigilant to meet our needs head on.

Digby: Communication. It's hard. Over 20,000 students and many diverse family situations, but we could polish messaging and find more creative ways to use internet and social media to reach students and parents.

Guthrie: How well everyone in the district is able to overperform in results with the limited resources that the district receives that is due to the culture of excellence of the district from top to bottom.

Moore: We are losing good teachers, coaches, counselors, administrators and support staff to surrounding counties because of financial compensation. We must increase their financial compensation. They need to be validated, celebrated and appreciated more.

Smith: Ten of 24 schools are overcrowded in DD2, and if we utilized the laws on the books with Act 229, the school board can implement voluntary fees on new homes built rather than raising property taxes.

Staropoli: Advocacy for teachers and students is an issue that needs to be addressed. Teacher pay is a focus but that falls on the funding formula. Until then teachers need us as their champion.

Tupper: Parent engagement in a child’s education is a huge factor to student success. More parents need to be involved and meet schools halfway. Finding new ways to work together is beneficial to all.

Weaver: The most overlooked issue facing DD2 is capturing stakeholder input from our most valuable employees: teachers and support staff. Implementing focus groups is a must to capture stakeholder input.

Wimberly: The state funding formula has not been updated in more than 40 years, keeping DD2 as one of the lowest funded. This is directly linked to issues such as teacher turnover and unmanageable class sizes.

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

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