A former director in Mick Zais’ state Department of Education is seeking the Democratic nomination for state schools chief, setting up a possible contest against his former boss.
Montrio Belton of Fort Mill, a former S.C. school teacher, administrator and director of the Office of School Transformation under Republican Zais, confirmed Monday he is running for the state’s top education post.
In the Democratic primary, Belton, 40, will face state Rep. Mike Anthony, D-Union, who previously announced he will seek his party’s nomination for state superintendent of education.
Zais is in his first term as schools chief. The Columbia Republican has said he plans to seek re-election.
Belton said that while he worked for the state Education Department, the Zais-led department missed opportunities to improve the state’s public schools due to its unwillingness to “put skin in the game” and “leverage resources, not necessarily financial” to fill needs in school districts.
Zais and Anthony were unavailable to comment Monday.
Belton was the Education Department’s director of School Transformation for the 2011-12 school year, overseeing that office’s $110 million budget. He left to pursue a law degree at the University of South Carolina where he said Monday that he is in his second year of studies.
Expanding Internet connectivity, Montessori school, single-gender and after-school programs were goals that Belton said he thought could have been accomplished had the department committed resources.
Belton said he did not think seeking new money was necessary. Instead, the education superintendent could advocate for repurposing money that school districts already have, and seeking grants and partnerships. The superintendent also should use his “bully pulpit” to drum up support in the Legislature and school districts, Belton said.
An Education Department spokeswoman said Monday that expanding districts’ access to broadband Internet, maximizing the use of money, building partnerships and putting money toward after-school programs have been priorities for the agency.
Zais has said that finding ways to give districts more flexibility to how they spend money has been a top priority since he has taken office.
But Belton said animosity between the Zais administration and educator advocacy groups has been an obstacle to progress in S.C. schools.
Zais’ term has been marked by friction with educator groups who have criticized his plan to give teachers letter grades based on how much students improve on standardized test scores.
Promising a tool that educators and school administrators can use to identify and reward excellent teachers while helping struggling teachers improve, Zais has asked educator groups to hold their criticism until the system has been tested.
Educator groups have complained they were not included in the process of developing the evaluation system.
“School improvement has to come from the ground up,” Belton said. “You have to work with stakeholders within districts and outside districts. You have to be willing to bring all stakeholders to the table.”
So far, no Republicans have said they will challenge Zais in the June 2014 GOP primary. State Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Spartanburg, had considered a run but decided against it.
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