Richland County Rep. Joe McEachern has pre-filed a bill in the Legislature to create four single-member districts for the seven-member Richland 2 school board, a proposal that so far has generated little enthusiasm among current board members.
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. MaryGail Douglas, D-Fairfield, would model the makeup of the Richland 1 school board, with four members elected to single-member districts and three elected at-large.
“This is the only entity in Richland County that does not have single-member districts,” McEachern said late last month after prefiling the bill. Currently, he said, members tend to be clustered in the middle part of the district, leaving the areas around Blythewood and Westwood high schools under-represented.
McEachern said the legislation would “spread opportunity” and invite more people into the public arena. Currently, two school board members live in the residential area near Spring Valley High School. With single-member districts, he would hope people in Blythewood would consider running.
But board chairman Bill Flemming said he would prefer continuing with the at-large system.
“If everybody runs at-large, you can represent all the students and all the parents,” he said. He worries that single-member districts could allow one member to dominate discussion of an issue relevant to one high school or geographic area.
Executives with the S.C. School Boards Association said there are a variety of electoral configurations among school boards statewide.
Currently, board members are elected in 77 of 81 districts, with the remaining four appointed by county boards, according to statistics compiled by the association. Of those, 39 districts chose members from single-member districts, 22 are elected at-large and 16 districts have a combination of single-member and at-large.
“I can’t say we are seeing a trend away from at-large and toward single-member districts or in the other direction, for that matter,” said Scott Price, general counsel for SCSBA.
Molly Spearman, the association’s executive director, said consolidation, particularly in rural areas of the state, often leads to changes in the way school board members are elected. Single-member districts provide some assurance of diversity on a board, she said.
“I know a lot of the single-member districts were set up to ensure diversity and better representation on the board,” Spearman said. “As populations shift, it is a constant thing to look at to make sure people are represented.”
Richland 2 board member Calvin “Chip” Jackson said he doesn’t think there needs to be a change, because he believes the Richland 2 school board has been successful at adding minority representation as the district has become larger and majority-minority.
“When I came on the board, there were two African-Americans and I made three,” said Jackson, who favors continuing with the current system.
“I ran at-large fully understanding that I would represent all 26,000 students,” Jackson said. “I would never personally want to change my status.
“I just believe people who have the entire district (at) heart and are not driven by a particularly geographic location, tend to be more broad in their thinking,” said Jackson. “When you have an at-large situation, your thinking has to be global.”
Board member James Manning said Thursday he had not been notified by the legislative delegation of the proposal and wished he had learned of it earlier.
“I believe there are benefits to both systems,” Manning said. “However, I believe that the at-large Richland 2 system has proven to be effective not only in overall test scores but in (responding to) the growth of the district.”
He said the current board has worked collaboratively, and he said implementing single-member districts in the next election would definitely dislodge some incumbents, if all chose to run.
“Until proven otherwise, I’m not for single-member districts at this time,” he said.
Board member Susan Brill said she didn’t “feel the need to model myself after anybody else,” since the board has good district-wide representation.
“I could see seven single-member districts, but not four,” she said. “But I really think the system we have is the best.”
Brill, like Manning, was puzzled that McEachern had not contacted her about the proposal. “It would have been nice if he had picked up the phone and asked, ‘What do you think?’”
Board member Melinda Anderson said she wanted to review the proposed legislation before making a decision on it. Board members Monica Elkins-Johnson and Barbara Specter could not be reached for comment.