Apartheid. White Citizens Councils. Conspiracy among racist operatives.
The Richland 2 school board election devolved into more racially-explosive charges and counter-charges this week – some hyperbolic, others bordering on personal attacks – with just days to go before the Nov. 4 election.
A black parents organization and Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, suggested that a group backing a slate of three white candidates and one black candidate is engaged in tactics akin to those of the 1950s-era white citizens councils.
“This is about wanting to keep an apartheid system in place for Richland Two and we as parents will not stand for this either!!!,” the organization said on its website
The organization was responding to a provocative flier sent by the campaign group known as the Bi-Partisan Committee.
McLeod claimed the current Richland 2 administration has collaborated with the Bi-Partisan Committee to promote the four candidates, which would retain a white majority on the board. The committee denied that charge.
“Realizing that change is imminent, former R2 leaders have joined forces with current R2 leaders to create this unholy alliance and ironically, it’s this White Citizens’ Council – not the Black Parents Association, that has strategically placed the issue of race front and center,” McLeod wrote on her political blog.
In her blog, McLeod compared Richland 2 superintendent Debbie Hamm to Lillian McBride, the former Richland County elections director who presided over the 2012 election debacle.
Efforts to reach Stephen Gilchrist, a leader of the Richland 2 Black Parents Association, were unsuccessful Tuesday. McLeod said in an email she would not share potential evidence of collaboration and would explain further “in my own words, in my own way, in my own time.”
A member of the Bi-Partisan Committee said Tuesday there has never been a conversation between committee members and the administration over its campaign slate.
“That would be absolutely foolish,” said George Shissias.
Twelve candidates are vying for four seats on the seven-member board that oversees the Midlands’ largest school district. The campaign has generated heightened interest, and more minority candidates, with the founding of the black parents advocacy organization earlier this year.
The black parents group has met with Hamm and other Richland 2 administrators to discuss such issues as the number of African-American males who are suspended or expelled. Gilchrist said he believes his group is “working alongside the administration.”
But the weekend mailing from the Bi-Partisan Committee touched a nerve at the Black Parents Association.
The flier featured a story about incumbent Melinda Anderson, one of the board’s three black members, who was censured last year for allegedly threatening her grandson’s coach. And it characterized the black parents group as having a race-based agenda.
Ben Nesbit, retired principal of Spring Valley High School, said Tuesday he regretted the tone of the Bi-Partisan Committee’s flier.
“I think it could have been more temperate,” said Nesbit, who was principal from 1977-1992.
He said it was time to return to a focus on education.
The Bi-Partisan Committee, composed of a retired Richland 2 superintendent, retired principals and others, decided to front a slate of candidates after the black parents organization lamented the number of white administrators at the district office, retired Superintendent John Hudgens has said.
By Tuesday night, few people were willing to talk about the unfolding events.
Rep. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, reaffirmed his support of Hamm but declined to talk further.
“I think she is the right choice and I think she has done a great job of building morale in the district,” he said.
One retired teacher, Sally Huguley said she was demoralized by the fracas and the focus on race.
“We need to be talking less about race and more about poverty,” Huguley said. “If you ask any Richland 2 teacher what’s the biggest classroom challenge they face, they’ll say it’s how to teach poor children to achieve academically. I know this is true, having taught for 17 years at a Title One school.”