The Richland 2 school board race is accelerating into a referendum on the future of the 26,000-student district, which has transitioned over two decades from a small, affluent suburban district to one where minority students are the majority and issues of poverty and transience are forcing a new and sometimes divisive conversation about education.
"The issues that we are facing in 2012 didn’t exist eight years ago," said board chairman Calvin "Chip" Jackson, who along with vice chairman Susan Brill is seeking a second full term. "The question is how we are going to make the transition from the old to the new and also maintain the high level of academic excellence."
With the retirement of board member Stephanie Burgess, three seats are up for grabs in the Nov. 6 election.
In addition to the two incumbents, the five challengers all have ties to the district: Regina Cor-ley is a former board member; Stevie Johnson is a parent of two Richland 2 graduates; Jennifer Richter is a parent and former educator in the district; Monica Elkins ia a former teacher and administrator, and John Propst is a former district employee.
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Six of the seven candidates are set to meet tonight at a forum for voters, hosted by the Richland Two Teacher Forum and the League of Women Voters.
Jackson and Brill said dramatically changing demographics are driving a new discussion on how to reach every student, from high-flying college-bound students to those who are struggling. There are more students in poverty, more students who are learning English as a second language and more transient students, who move in and out of the district for a variety of reasons.
Last year, school officials estimated the district at about 59 percent black, 29 percent white, 6 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian and 3 percent other.
"The population is different," said Jackson, who is campaigning to bring a greater sense of urgency to the issues. "You can’t return to the old measures of success with a new population and a new demographic of students."
"We are not the same school district we were five or six years ago," Brill agreed. But even with the challenges she believes the district offers "awesome opportunities," particularly among its signature magnet programs.
Jackson says superintendent Katie Brochu, who succeeded longtime Rich-land 2 chief Steve Hefner in 2010, shouldn’t be blamed for being in charge at a time of transition and upheaval, although since her arrival she has endured criticism for accelerating changes without full community backing.
But some school board candidates worry that Brochu’s approach and style is splintering a once cohesive district.
"I think a change in leadership would help," said Stevie Johnson, the parent of two Spring Valley High School graduates. "I think there are plenty of people who are disenchanted and ready for a change."
Even more important, she said, is greater accountability on big-ticket programs like 1TWO1 Computing, which puts iPads and Chromebooks into student hands, and a more concerted effort to tie education initiatives with academic outcomes.
"I think everybody wants technology but there are enormous questions about the effectiveness of the current program," said John-son, who described this election as the most important in the last 12 years.
Brochu came under fire early in her tenure for commissioning a $150,000 efficiency study that led to the elimination of about 145 jobs, including assistant principal positions, and the departures of veteran "working retirees" Johnson has also been critical of spending thousands on professional development for administrators and teachers through the nonprofit Schlechty Center, run by education consultant Phillip Schlechty.
Her administration also endured a bruising battle over the rezoning of high schools and is still answering questions about the building of a new $40 million vocational technology/ community center at a time when the district’s SAT scores plunged by 40 points.
Richter, a former Richland 2 teacher and administrator with a doctorate in educational leadership, said she would not be reticent about calling for changes in the administration but wants to make an informed, analytical decision.
"I hear from people I respect who have some pretty big concerns," said Richter, the first lead girls teacher at Dent Middle School’s TWOs Academy single-gender program and a former school administrator in Virginia. "But I don’t feel I have all the pieces of the puzzle and the only way I can get that is to be on the board."
The mother of two said her background in analyzing data would be an asset in evaluating the effectiveness of instruction. She has received the endorsement of board member James Manning and Burgess, the outgoing board member. Manning has also endorsed the two incumbents.
Monica Elkins, who has spent 18 years in the district as a teacher and administrator, said she would bring an insider’s perspective to the board because she understands students and has worked effectively with parents, including those who do not necessarily understand how to navigate the system.
"I have been in the schools and in the trenches and I see day to day what teachers need," Elkins, a former Ridge View assistant administrator, said. "I know how to reach parents and students."
Propst said he spent 19 years as the district’s supervisor of security services trying to improve traffic safety at carpools and security at sports, graduation and other events. If elected, he would focus on making sure discipline, from in-school suspensions to expulsions, is conducted equally across the school population "and that everyone gets a fair shake," he said. The 30-year Army veteran and father of four grown children said he believed he would be a good watchdog of district resources as well. He will not be at the forum because of a family situation.
Corley could not be reached for this story.