Race has become the defining issue in the Richland 2 school board election, as rumors circulate of a shift in power from a white-majority to a black-majority board.
Fueled by the activism of an African-American parents’ advocacy organization and a separate white group called the Bi-Partisan Committee, the usually placid election in the Midlands’ largest district has spawned heightened interest and dueling visions for the future of the 27,300-student district.
“In a non-national election year, this is probably the most talked-about election in the community,” said the Rev. Chris Leevy Johnson, campus pastor of Brookland Baptist Church Northeast. “There is change, I guess, in the atmosphere but it is also reflective of our new reality. People need to come to terms that there is a new reality. But it is hard to give up power.”
Demographically, the district has altered dramatically in 20 years. An explosion of development in Northeast Richland and black migration to the suburbs has transformed the district from a small, predominantly white suburban district to a sprawling, urban-suburban majority-black district.
White students now make up about 27 percent of the district, while the numbers of black students has risen to nearly 59 percent; Hispanics, 7 percent; Asians, nearly 3 percent; and multiracial groups, just more than 4 percent.
Twelve candidates, including three incumbents, are running for four at-large seats on the seven-member board, which now has four white members and three black members. Eight of the candidates, including incumbent Melinda Anderson, are black. Four, including incumbents James Manning and Barbara Specter, are white. The election is Nov. 4.
“I think persons who fear an African-American majority on the board think the schools are going to change,” said Johnson, who remembers when the district had only two high schools, Spring Valley and Richland Northeast, both predominantly white. “The Caucasian community has got to understand that we want the same opportunities and the same benefits and there is no need to fear. We are not trying to take away anyone’s power. We just want a voice at the table.”
But a member of the Bi-Partisan Committee said he believes things will change if certain black candidates win election and begin to institute hiring and promotions at the district based on race and not on qualifications.
“I think it’s the last stand for a good school district,” said George Shissias, whose wife, former S.C. House member June Shissias, is also on the committee. “You will have people who will leave for other jobs. They will bully them and threaten them.”
His group, Shissias said, is supporting four candidates based on qualifications, not race.
The Richland 2 Black Parents Association, formed earlier this year, has advocated for more minority representation on the board, calling the Nov. 4 vote “the most important election of our children’s lifetime in Richland School District 2.”
The Bi-Partisan Committee, which includes among its members a former Richland 2 superintendent, a former House member and two former principals, has countered with a provocative four-page mailer that characterizes the black parent organization as a group that advocates race-based decision-making.
‘We want it to be the best people’
With the large number of candidates, advocates say the slates are fluid and the outcome too difficult to predict.
“Certainly we have been asked by black candidates and white candidates for support,” said Stephen Gilchrist, a leader of the black parents organization. The association, with 2,700 on its mailing list, has raised questions about the large number of African-American males who are suspended or expelled from school and suggested there are disparities in educational opportunities for black students in the district’s magnet and other programs.
Gilchrist said the association will not present a particular slate nor encourage its membership to vote only for black candidates, although five African-American candidates are highlighted on the group’s website, www.richland2blackparents.org. (Two black candidates, John Dublin and Cheryl Caution-Parker, are not listed as African-American on the website, which Gilchrist said was a mistake.) He said the organization is working alongside the administration to bring about change.
Shissias said the omission of Caution-Parker, a longtime Richland administrator, as an African-American, is telling. “Why would a black parents group totally reject Cheryl, with her background? Because she told them she took a stand against race-based hiring.”
Former Richland 2 Superintendent John Hudgens, part of the Bi-Partisan Committee, said he has been fielding telephone calls in the wake of rumors that some in the campaigns are pushing for an all-black school board.
“I’ve been part of this trying to integrate schools for years and years and I hate to see one side trying to dominate rather than working side by side, together,” said Hudgens, who retired in 1994. “If your goal is to have all of one race on the board, then maybe your goal is to have all of one race in the administration, and I would not be for that.”
The Bi-Partisan Committee’s mailing, sent to selected ZIP codes in the district, also turns up the heat on race. The mailing, which cost $8,000 to produce, highlights the board’s censure last year of incumbent Anderson, one of the board’s three black members, for allegedly making a threat against her grandson’s coach. It features a State newspaper story on the censure.
The mailing also directs voters to the black parents organization website, noting that the goal of the group “is to replace the current superintendent, not renew contracts for white administrators and hire their friends for the top jobs in the District,” the mailer stated.
Hudgens, Shissias and others on the Bi-Partisan Committee are backing a ticket that includes three white candidates – incumbent Manning, Paul Manville and Craig Plank, and one black candidate, Caution-Parker, who was known for many years by her previous married name, Cheryl Washington.
School board member Monica Elkins-Johnson, one of three black board members, said Tuesday it is only white residents who are raising concerns about an all-black board.
“They never questioned (the racial make-up) when it was all white,” she said.
She wants to see new leadership and is backing a slate that excludes her fellow board members who are seeking re-election. Her slate includes three black candidates – Hugh Harmon, a minister and Richland 1 teacher, Chandra Cleveland-Jones, a former school resource officer, and Ridge View parent advocate Amelia McKie – and Plank, an insurance agent, who is white.
“I think we want it to be the best people, whether you are white or black,” said Elkins-Johnson, who won election in 2012. Elkins-Johnson said she isn’t afraid to address race, saying you have to have an awareness in order to tackle issues that affect minorities. “I hear people say I don’t see race,” she said. “Seeing race doesn’t make you a racist.”
‘time to just tell it like it is’
Issues of racial disparity were front and center at an Oct. 16 candidate forum.
The 11 candidates who were present discussed the high numbers of African-American males who are sent to Blythewood Academy, the district’s alternative school, for disciplinary issues. The candidates also debated the virtues of the district’s signature magnet programs.
The magnet programs, those with the highest academic entrance standards, have traditionally attracted more affluent, college-bound students, whose families understand how to navigate the system and are able to provide transportation. In turn, they have provided academic cachet to the district.
But as the district has exploded in growth, issues of poverty, transience and homelessness have required more of the district’s resources and attention. Students in poverty are largely absent in the highly competitive high school magnet programs, although all-school magnets, such as L.W. Conder Elementary Arts Integrated Magnet School, draw a wider population because anyone in the district can attend.
James Mobley, who is mounting a second bid for the board, struck a nerve with some at the forum when he lamented in colorful street language that the district is out of touch with folks in the “hood.”
“It’s time to just tell it like it is,” Mobley said. “Everybody knows the magnet program ain’t fair. We know that; everybody know that.”
Johnson said he is supporting a deacon in his church, John Dublin, for a board seat. Johnson has distanced himself from the black parents group “because there is too much diversity in the school district to have one splinter organization.”
“I do think there are specific needs in the African-American community in District 2, and I think those needs can be met and resolved within the district system,” he said. “The litmus test is going to be in the numbers, in really two numbers: In maintaining safety in our schools and in maintaining test scores if there becomes an African-American majority (on the board).”
The district earned a B in the most recent federal report card, but test scores have fallen in recent years behind Lexington 1 and Lexington-Richland 5 school districts, Midlands districts that are whiter and more affluent.