Some of Charleston County's wealthiest and most politically connected figures — including three mayors — plan to endorse a slate of candidates and overhaul the school board in the upcoming November election.
But so far the members of the Charleston Coalition for Kids are saying relatively little about their larger agenda or who they'll target, other than a general hope to reduce bickering and promote a better-informed debate about the future of local public schools.
"We will educate the public about the school board and help recruit, elect and support qualified board members," Executive Director Josh Bell said in a press release Wednesday.
"We need to enact real, transformative change in the Charleston County School District to improve the standard of education for all students," he said.
The 75 founding members of the group cover a wide range of ideologies and experiences. They include Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, former Mayor Joe Riley, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin, Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott and four Boeing representatives.
The coalition also includes Ben Navarro, founder of Meeting Street Schools, and Anita Zucker, a businesswoman who has led major philanthropic efforts in the schools, including the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative.
Both are among the wealthiest people in the state.
Others on board include five ex-school board members, multiple ex-teachers and several parents.
No current Charleston County School District teachers are among the 75 founding members, but Bell said the group would love to have some join.
The current school board is "infamous for dysfunction," Bell said. Recent meetings have featured numerous split votes and occasional infighting that derailed debates on policy issues for minutes at a time.
"We deserve thoughtful, visionary board members who understand their role to ensure students reach their potential," Bell said.
Bell is the former executive director of the teacher recruiting organization Teach for America in South Carolina but said he will not be advocating for that organization in his new role with the coalition. The members also include Debra Sonkin, who has served on a regional advisory board for Teach for America.
Asked if the group will support or oppose the expansion of school choice and charter schools, Bell said, "We believe Charleston County School District must consider all options for effective public schools for every family ... This is about electing leaders who will drive change in our school system."
Three coalition members, including two who appear in a promotional video, are part of Charleston RISE, a group of parent advocates who received training from the pro-charter school organization SouthCarolinaCAN (formerly known as StudentsFirst South Carolina).
The group made one of its first public appearances during May 2017 protests at the district office, when members showed up to support a controversial plan to use standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.
At least one founding member, former St. John's High principal and ex-school board chair Liz Alston, said she is wary of the expansion of magnet schools because of the damage they have caused to traditional schools.
Alston said candidates' disposition will be an important factor when considering endorsements. She said the board also needs more members who have experience as educators. The board currently has one retired teacher, Priscilla Jeffery.
"I’m looking for someone who doesn’t have an agenda of his or her own, someone who is knowledgeable about the schools," Alston said.
Another coalition member and former school board chair, Chris Fraser, said he wants candidates who know the distinction between governance and management — between the high-level budget and policy decisions that he sees as the board's main job and the low-level managerial decisions that sometimes eat up the board's time and energy.
"Unfortunately we seem to routinely elect folks that come to the school board with an agenda that isn’t about great schools for kids," Fraser said. "By its very nature we have people in the room that are not cohesive, if you will, with moving the ball forward."
The coalition will evaluate school board candidates over the summer and announce endorsements around August, when school starts back.
Four of the nine seats of the Charleston County School Board are up for election on Nov. 6. The races are nonpartisan, and the deadline to submit a petition to appear on the ballot is July 16 at noon. For more information on filing as a candidate, visit scvotes.org.
The four seats up for grabs are held by incumbent board chair and East Cooper member Kate Darby, Vice Chair and West Ashley member the Rev. Eric Mack, North Charleston member Cindy Bohn Coats, and East Cooper member Chris Staubes.
Candidates for School Board seats must reside in the area they seek to represent but will be elected by voters of the entire county.
The Charleston Coalition for Kids is not the only group eyeing school board races. The South Carolina League of Women Voters held a workshop for potential candidates in February. The Quality Education Project also will host a clinic titled "How to Run an Informed School Board Campaign" on June 26 at 6 p.m. at the International Longshoreman's Association Hall at 1142 Morrison Drive, Charleston.
The Charleston Coalition for Kids is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. Bell said the group is "nearing 100 individual donors," including parents, businesses and founding members. For more information or to join the coalition, visit chskids.org.