Richland County voters will elect five members to the Richland 1 school board Nov. 6, with the most visible contest among two veteran incumbents and two challengers vying for a pair of at-large seats.
That four-way race is turning out to be a generational one, with two 30-and under challengers, Antjuan Seawright and Moryah Jackson, taking on two long-time office holders.
Vince Ford, a vice president at Palmetto Health and a 20-year board veteran, is seeking a sixth term. Barbara Scott served eight years on the school board from 1974-83 before winning election in 1984 as Richland County clerk of court. She returned to the school board four years ago after losing the nomination for clerk in the 2008 Democratic primary.
In a separate race, board vice-chairman Jamie Devine is facing a challenge from Racquel Dobbs, a 5th-grade teacher at Bradley Elementary School.
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Challengers for two other seats face no opposition. Beatrice King is unopposed on the ballot to fulfill the unexpired term
of Rob Tyson, who resigned in May. Cheryl Hinton Harris is also unopposed in her bid to claim the seat being vacated by board chairman Dwayne Smiling. Smiling decided not to seek re-election.
"I think this election will say a lot about where the community is on our schools," said Seawright, 27, the CEO of Sunrise Communications, a company founded by state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Rich-land. "A lot of time people don’t see school boards as very important. I think people might want a younger face on the school board."
Seawright said he would focus on the growing number of homeless children in the schools, while also making early childhood education and STEMS – shorthand for science, technology, engineering and math – top priorities. He said he has garnered the support of Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.
But Ford said his experience and willingness to embrace tough challenges through the years set him apart as an incumbent who is still passionate about educating every child, no matter their economic background.
"Experience is important and what I continue to bring to the board is leadership," he said. "I haven’t been afraid when it came time to build our schools. I was chair when we passed the two largest bond issues in the state."
He said he persuaded the board to require student athletes to maintain a C average to play, even when that met with some opposition, and initiated the district’s first medical magnet program at C.A. Johnson High School.
Ford, the father of two grown children and grandfather to two, credits the board with facing up to the challenge of educating children in poverty, including a growing number of homeless children. If it were up to him, he would ask parents whose children are lagging behind to attend school on Saturday mornings or after school for serious remedial instruction.
"What I’m interested in the next four years is a lot more innovation, a lot more opportunities for children," said Ford, who acknowledges the district needs to upgrade technology and training for students and teachers.
"I’m not interested in slow, incremental progress. I’m interested in big, bold progress and I think that is what is going to take because some of our children are far behind."
Candidate Jackson, 30, doesn’t believe the board has been bold enough. The Columbia College graduate, who is working on her doctorate in leadership, said she wants to bring a whole new perspective to education, making it transformative rather than reactive.
"We cannot continue to reform education with piecemeal programs," said Jackson, a mother of two small children who works as an apprenticeship consultant for the S.C. Technical college system. "I love to say we have such personalization in America now, but we are not personalizing education. I think our current system is completely outdated."
Incumbent Scott believes her experience and knowledge of the district should count with voters. She wants to return to the board in order to continue the upward positive trajectory of the district, which she believes has benefited from Superintendent Per-cy Mack’s "steady hand."
"I think (experience) should make a difference," Scott said. "People who come in and don’t have that experience are a little lost about what to do."
Scott, a mother of four grown children and nine grandchildren, suffered a setback two months ago when she fell in her home and broke a hip and wrist, requiring a hip replacement and weeks of physical therapy. But she said she never considered quitting the race.
She is enthusiastic about what Richland 1 has accomplished in recent years and its refusal to give up on children from impoverished backgrounds.
"I often tell people if we published a little booklet of what we do for children in that arena, people would be flabbergasted," Scott said. "I sometimes marvel at it myself."
Devine, who is seeking a second term, said he’ll continue to focus on student achievement and work with the administration of Superintendent Mack, who he believes has laid groundwork for Richland 1 ’s student achievement progress.
Devine, a father of two who is married to Columbia city council member Tameika Isaac Devine, said he believes the board has managed finances of the district well during the economic downturn and is poised to add programming and magnets based on solid evidence of need. With a $252 million budget, Richland 1 provides a huge economic engine for the region, he said.
"I hear all the time from parents, how do we increase programming" similar to neighboring Rich-land 2, which is known for its magnets. Richland 1 established its first medical magnet at C.A. Johnson last fall. "We don’t want to have a program that is just for a namesake."
Efforts to reach Dobbs were unsuccessful.