Richland 1 schools superintendent Percy Mack, who arrived in Columbia on the eve of the October 2008 recession and guided the urban school system with a steady hand, announced Wednesday he is retiring after six years with the district.
At a news conference, Mack said he took pride in several signature achievements during his tenure, including the establishment of a health science magnet program at C.A. Johnson High School and a Navistar diesel technology program at the Heyward Career and Technology Center. Next fall, he said, the district will open a new middle school Montessori program at W.G. Sanders Middle School.
“I thank you all so very much for the support you have given me during this portion of my career,” said Mack, who has spent a total of 42 years in education, including time as a classroom teacher and principal. He saluted his staff, noting that “their love for this school district and for the boys and girls goes beyond what I could talk about here today.”
Mack, who will retire as of June 30, said he would remain in the Columbia area and may keep his hand in education through teaching or mentoring, although he said he had no firm plans for now.
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Board chairman Aaron Bishop said Mack presented his letter of retirement Tuesday during an executive session of the seven-member school board, adding, “It came as a total surprise.” The board agreed unanimously to accept Mack’s decision to retire.
Bishop said he believes the district, with nearly 22,700 students and 52 schools and centers, is on an upward trajectory and he wants to maintain that momentum. The board will meet in coming weeks to appoint an interim superintendent and begin a national search for Mack’s successor.
“I think we have no time to waste,” said board member Vince Ford. “I think we have to have a person in place as soon as possible.” He said the board must be sure it has the right executive search company to guide the board in its selection.
On the annual district report cards issued by the S.C. Department of Education, Richland 1 improved its absolute rating from below average to average, and recorded an excellent growth rating in 2013. While there are pockets of excellence in the district, there are wide swaths of poverty as well, which Mack has addressed through a focus on literacy efforts and family support programs. The graduation rate has inched up under Mack to 71.7 percent last year.
Mack, a native of Savannah, Ga., came to Columbia in July 2008 from Dayton, Ohio, where he restored public confidence in a school system that was among the state’s most troubled. During his time in Dayton, he helped raise the graduation rate to 80 percent from 52 percent.
When he arrived in the Midlands, Mack said his top priority would be improving academic achievement and lifting five under-performing schools out of academic malaise. Those schools, known as Palmetto Priority Schools, failed to meet expected progress on student achievement under the state’s Education Accountability Act. One remains on the list.
Board member Beatrice King said she appreciated Mack’s effort on the priority schools as well as his focus on literacy.
Just months after assuming the superintendency, Mack was plunged into the economic recession of 2008 and forced to guide the Richland 1 system through deep budget cuts and wrestle with the state Legislature over funding. The district has eliminated about 400 positions over the past five years, a move that helped to balance the budget once federal economic stimulus money went away.
Last July, the Richland 1 board approved a $268.4 million budget for 2013-14 that provided six additional teachers for early childhood education classes, placed a school resource officer in every school and established an educator development office. The budget for the 2014-15 year is still in progress.
“I think we’ve stayed in better shape than a lot of districts,” Ed Carlon, chief operations officer and director of budget services for the district, said before the July 2013 vote. “We didn’t furlough; we didn’t do midyear cuts.”
Mack, who earned his doctorate from Georgia State University, has had a long career. In addition to working as the Dayton, Ohio, superintendent, he was assistant superintendent in the DeKalb County School System in Decatur, Ga. During his early career, he was a teacher and coach in Decatur and rose to become an assistant principal, a principal and coordinator of personnel. He began his teaching career in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System.
Retiring Superintendent Percy Mack on Wednesday touted these among his successes during his tenure with Richland 1:
• Opening of new middle school Montessori program at W.G. Sanders Middle School this fall.
• Opening of health science magnet at C.A. Johnson High School in fall 2012.
• Opening of Navistar diesel technology program at Heyward Career and Technology Center in fall 2011.
Under Percy Mack by the numbers :
Students: Nearly 22,700
High school graduation rate in 2013: 71.7, up from roughly 67 percent in 2012
Palmetto Priority Schools: Five Richland 1 schools were on a statewide list of academic underperformers for failing to meet expected progress when Mack arrived; that number is now at one.