Richland 2’s three newest school board members say they are putting the racially tinged campaign behind them as they prepare to take their places on the seven-member board.
“I don't really like to camp in the area of the racial divide; I’d rather focus on where we want to head to move forward on being a premier district,” said Craig Plank, an insurance agent who hopes to bring a business perspective to the board.
Plank said he is looking forward to the opening, in 2016, of the $41 million Richland 2 Institute of Innovation, which will provide a place for high-school students to earn certification, accreditation and college credit before graduation. That dovetails with his focus on school-business partnerships.
“To me, it’s making sure we have kids prepared for the workforce,” Plank said. “We are educating our kids so that when they graduate they are prepared to step out and contribute to society.”
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“I’m looking forward to a thriving board, not necessarily a unified board, but I want a board that can talk and discuss the issues and start moving through with a reasonable attitude.”
Cheryl Caution-Parker, a retired District 2 administrator who weathered personal attacks during the campaign, also said she is looking to the future of the 27,300-student district.
“The two questions I have in mind, and have always had in mind, and will probably always have in mind: What are we doing for our children, and is what we are doing effective for our children?” she said.
“The negative issues and concerns – there is nothing I really want to say about that,” Caution-Parker said. “I’m looking to the future and focusing on the future.”
Amelia McKie, a longtime parent advocate at Ridge View High School who is active in the state School Inprovement Council, said she is excited about “continuing my advocacy for equity, parity and parent/community partnerships.”
McKie was also the focus of veiled attacks during the election campaign, but she said she was proud that she stayed above the mud-slinging.
“I worked tirelessly at being committed to carrying out a positive campaign, reflective of my values and belief system, ensuring that I did not engage in smearing, besmirching, maligning or spreading untruths about any other candidates or organizations,” she said.
That theme of reconciliation wound through interviews in the days after an election where websites, flyers and blogs served as a conduit for airing provocative statements, hyperbolic claims and personal jibes about the racial motives of candidates and supporters.
“By the last weekend (before the election), I think most of it had started to scale back,” said retiring board member Bill Flemming. “I believe that people realized this is not the way we operate, under these types of racial pressures.”
Two white candidates and two black candidates were elected, tilting the racial balance now to four black and three white members. Two incumbents, Melinda Anderson and Barbara Specter, lost their re-election bids.
James Manning was the top vote-getter and the only incumbent returned to the board. He avoided engaging in racial rhetoric and he said Friday voters responded to that message.
“Obviously people appreciated who I am and how I conduct myself,” said Manning, who won a second term. “I do think that was clearly communicated to me with the numbers.”
As to the future, “I am going to work as I have always done, which is to take care of the students and make sure the district has the resources and that we are moving in a positive manner.”
Stephen Gilchrist, a leader of the Richland 2 Black Parents Association that was founded early this year, predicted smoother waters.
His organization and a dueling campaign organization formed by white retirees called the Bi-Partisan Committee exposed the district’s racial fault lines, each accusing the other of running race-based campaigns.
“I think you will see cooler heads coming together,” Gilchrist said Wednesday. “The issue is how do we come together and focus on what is more important, and that is how to move the district forward.”
He said Superintendent Debbie Hamm and the administration already have met with the black parents association to discuss a number of issues, including the number of African-American males who are suspended or expelled from school.
Gilchrist said he also wants to make sure that companies run by African-Americans are given an equal shot at doing business with the district.
“We hope we can work collaboratively with the district for African-American businesses,” he said. “From professional development to simple goods and services, there are so many opportunities that can be identified.”
Former Richland 2 Superintendent John Hudgens, a member of the Bi-Partisan Committee, said he was pleased that three of the four candidates he backed won. He stood by the committee’s flyer although he and one other member, retired principal Ben Nesbit, acknowledged at least one section could have been more temperate.
“Now is the time for (board members) to put the hatchets down and do what’s best for the children,” Hudgens said. “If you have to fuss, do it behind closed doors.”
The Rev. Chris Leevy Johnson, a pastor in Northeast Richland, said perhaps the racial imbroglio was inevitable given the demographic shift from a predominantly white district to a predominantly minority district over the past two decades.
“It was going to have to happen regardless, I think, because the demographics changed and because the culture of the school district moved from a lily-white district,” he said. “Politics is ugly.”
But at the end of the day, he said the community spoke by electing candidates who he believes will work for the entire district.
“Now that that process is over, we will build something beautiful and special,” Johnson said. “Both African-American candidates were centrists and were elected by all ethnic groups. There was no way to be elected just being backed by one ethnic group.”
Like others, he believes the larger issue may be grappling with students in poverty to prepare them for and help them remain engaged in school.
“I repeat, repeat, every person who is coming into this district is coming for good schools,” Johnson said. “And nobody is going to get on the board to try and change that.”