ELECTION 2012

Lexington 1 race centers on coping with growth

tflach@thestate.comOctober 27, 2012 

  • Leaving together Bert Dooley and Frank Shumpert are leaving the Lexington 1 school board together after joining it separately. Both attended their final board meeting Oct. 16 after deciding to retire. They are different in manner, with Dooley folksy and loquacious and Shumpert reserved and reflective. But both are proud of the steady progress in classrooms that occurred under their oversight. “It’s not the same beast,” Shumpert said of the Lexington area schools that have added 9,000 students since the mid-1990s. Challenges are multiplying as some families want more cosmopolitan instruction while others seek a quality version of the basics, Dooley said. Finding money for improvements is increasingly difficult, both say. Declining state aid for schools is “a trail of broken promises,” Dooley said. “They’ve really tied our hands and set us up as targets.” Dooley and Shumpert continued a family legacy in overseeing education — as their fathers and grandfathers did — when the pair were elected to the board three years apart in the 1990s. Tim Flach

The contest for Lexington 1 school board is a referendum on how well classrooms are keeping pace with a steady and increasingly divergent influx of new students.

Some of the 12 candidates for the four seats on the Nov. 6 ballot are skeptical of the emphasis on using electronic tablets in instruction, while others want to abolish fees for selected activities.

Crowded fields of candidates are common in a district that is the county’s largest in enrollment and among the top-rated in South Carolina.

That reflects tension over the rising cost of assuring quality and coping with district growth that has added an average of 500 students annually for the past two decades.

“We’re getting people moving here with high expectations,” retiring board member Bert Dooley said.

At least two newcomers are guaranteed to join the board this time as Dooley and fellow incumbent Frank Shumpert retire.

Dooley and Shumpert are recommending physician Brent Powers of Lexington and retired educator Jean Haggard of Pelion as their replacements.

Cindy Smith and Edwin Harmon, the pair of board members seeking re-election, champion the tablets as modern textbooks giving students of all backgrounds up-to-date instruction through the Internet.

“You’re giving each child the world at their fingertips,” Shumpert said.

Newcomer Rhonda Gunter supports them as a way for students to “broaden their horizons” if used effectively. She was on the Lexington 4 school board before moving to the Pelion area.

Some challengers say school officials haven’t added enough safeguards to prevent abuses and problems.

“Not all technology is good,” said Hazel Duell, a former board member seeking to return to the panel.

Other challengers said the emphasis can make students computer-savvy without assuring they have the skills in the basics of reading, writing and mathematics.

“We need to do way better on that,” Janet Frazier said.

Cuts in state aid that forced 70 layoffs — mostly teachers — in 2010 also led to fees, as board members opted for those charges to keep some types of music and other activities alive.

“We heard loud and clear from parents they wanted those to remain,” Smith said.

Challenger Anthony Feraci says it’s time to end fees that are “hard on families.”

Harmon predicts a look at ideas like year-round schooling and staggered schedules if enrollment growth persists.

Those steps would be alternatives to adding more facilities that generate complaints about their cost forcing higher taxes.

The steady acceleration in property tax bills for schools “makes me part of the people who want to watch where the money is spent,” challenger Deb Kelderman said.

Haggard’s goal is to produce students who are “college- and career-ready” amid “a climate of fiscal responsibility.”

Newcomer Ted Zee promises “a balanced approach” in juggling the tension between residents who want low taxes and those who press for steady academic improvement.

Other newcomers want more invested in classrooms.

Lexington 1 is home to “fantastic schools” with leadership that recognizes “the world has gotten smaller and smaller with all our technology,” newcomer Rutu Bhonsle said.

Others want to keep schools among the best of the state but offer no specifics on doing that.

Good schools are “the backbone of our community,” Powers said.

Candidate Toyeka Campbell could not be reached for comment and did not appear at candidate forums.

Lexington 1 classrooms have 23,000 students in Gilbert, Lexington, Oak Grove, Pelion and Red Bank. Its 3,400-member staff make the district among the largest employers in the county.

The top four choices of voters in the nonpartisan match will be elected to the unpaid posts for four-year terms.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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