RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — Monica Elkins-Johnson used a coalition of former students and connections in the African-American community to win a seat on the Richland 2 school board, persuading voters she would bring the right combination of change and accessibility to the seven-member body.
Elkins-Johnson, 45, who was sworn in Monday, said she also relied on a higher power to leverage what many considered an uphill campaign that featured two incumbents and five challengers vying for three seats. Elkins resigned her position as an assistant administrator at Ridge View High School in March to pursue the seat.
The Lord had actually given me a vision to do more, said Elkins-Johnson, who campaigned using her maiden name of Monica Elkins. In my position, I wasnt able to do as much for the parents and the students. I resigned because I felt like the Lord was telling me to do more.
As she and former students went door to door meeting potential voters, I shared with them that it was spiritual and that I felt it was time for change in the district, Elkins said. I wanted a voice on the school board who had more recent experience as an educator, who had hands-on experience as an educator. We need someone who understands the trends that are going on in this generation.
One of her first strategy meetings was with her old boss at the Columbia Urban League, J.T. McLawhorn. Although the Urban League does not endorse candidates, McLawhorn said he connected her to leaders he knew in the community who could help in her campaign.
I supported her efforts, he said. She has always been a strong advocate for the disenfranchised.
Elkins was employed at the Urban League about 15 years ago, he said, working in one of the leagues job training centers helping young mothers on public assistance gain job skills. She connected extremely well, McLawhorn said.
Rep. Joe McEachern, D-Richland, described her as a pure educator who hustled to outpace challengers with greater name recognition.
She worked hard. She was a hustler. I guarantee you she worked 18 hours a day because she had a lot of obstacles, McEachern said. Nobody knew her name.
But her message as an educator who knew the inside of Richland 2 schools seemed to resonate with voters.
Elkins-Johnson said she wants to restore some of the career and technology education programs that have been eliminated in recent years, including woodworking, auto mechanics and welding, and make sure that children who are not going to college have a number of options for strong high school-to-job training.
The technical route is a route that a lot of students are taking, she said. College is great and Im a huge supporter of college but only if that is where your student is destined to go.
At a voter forum, Elkins-Johnson, who is African-American, said she believed the board needed more diversity to reflect the fact that Richland 2 is a majority-minority district. With her election, there are now four white members and four black members.
But Elkins-Johnson emphasized that education, not race, is her top priority. She said she is spending coming weeks learning about the issues in the district, meeting Superintendent Katie Brochu and other school board members, and hearing from voters.
Brochu has endured some criticism for declining scores in the district as well as her approach to professional development, issues she is supposed to respond to by Dec. 3. Elkins-Johnson said she wont have an opinion on those matters until she gains more experience on the board.
Along with Elkins, incumbent winners Calvin Chip Jackson and Susan Brill were sworn in for the new term.