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With a unanimous District 5 board, anything is possible

“When that board stood up and voted seven-oh for this, boy, did that send shock waves through our community.... It really woke people up.”

— District 5 Superintendent Scott Andersen

FEEL SORRY for the folks who work with me every day; their job just got tougher.

In our daily meetings, discussing what to say about such matters as, say, just how far our Legislature can be pushed to reform with mere rhetoric, they constantly exhort me to face facts as they are, to be realistic in my expectations or risk being irrelevant. I tell them that reality can and frequently does change; they sigh and groan.

They’ll probably escalate to wailing and gnashing their teeth now, for last week we witnessed miraculous proof that anything is possible: All seven members of the Lexington-Richland District 5 school board came in to tell us about their unanimous support for the district’s capital plan, which will be presented to voters in November.

We’re talking about spending $256 million in the district where the “they’re not my kids” variety of taxpayer resistance is a defining feature of community culture, like tall buildings in New York and surfboards in Hawaii.

This is the district that my distant cousin, TEC Dowling, tried to serve as interim superintendent not so long ago. He found the job maddening, and — being kin to me as he is — he was not one to suffer in silence.

“I have never been involved in such a climate of mistrust and disrespect for management decisions and operations,” he declared early in 2006.

This built a fire under the board: They went right out and hired a new superintendent. And they did it unanimously, which now looks like the start of a habit. Cousin TEC said trustees “made the right choice” in Scott Andersen. Of course, by that time TEC might have defined “the right choice” as anyone but him.

But to see and hear Mr. Andersen making the case for the building plan last week, with all seven board members nodding and chiming in with agreement and approbation, it was hard to escape the conclusion that they did make the right choice.

Or perhaps, two right choices — hiring Mr. Andersen, and deciding to work together.

The great irony is that while the Irmo/Chapin district is thought of as the second most contentious school board in South Carolina (first place goes to Allendale County, where one trustee pulled a knife on another not so many years ago), it has presided over one of the finest academic reputations in the state.

But that reputation has fueled growth, setting up bitter conflict between those who want to stay the course and those who blame the district for everything from sprawl to higher taxes.

Unanimity about anything was a faraway dream in the early part of this decade. Last week, after the board left smiling together, I looked back over columns former Associate Editor Nina Brook wrote in 2003 and 2004, during the turbulent tenure of then-Superintendent Dennis McMahon. Here are some of the headlines:

 “District 5 board backs McMahon, but conflicts will continue”

 “Get ready to ignore any mudslinging in District 5”

 “Discourse is a good thing, as long as not sprinkled with dirty tricks”

Some of the trouble could be laid at the feet of Mr. McMahon, whose management style did little to settle ruffled feathers. But as Nina wrote at one point, “it is difficult to see how even the most skilled conciliator could make everyone in District 5 happy.”

In 2005, the superintendent was fired on a 5-2 vote. Voting to sack him were trustees Jerry Fowler, Ellen Baumgardner, Carol Sloop and Paula Hite. On the opposite side were Robert Gantt and Ed White.

But last week all six of them, plus Roberta Ferrell, sat there with Mr. Andersen, basking in the glow of perfect harmony.

“We’re all here now to move forward,” said Ms. Hite. That said, neither she nor her fellows in the choir think opposition in the community has vanished. They know they face a challenge. “The core group’s still there that are going to oppose this, and they’re gonna oppose any plan we come up with,” said Mr. White.

Still, trustees cite several reasons to be optimistic about the bond proposal’s chances:

 Dissenting factions were represented on citizen panels that helped come up with the plan.

 Older schools will be upgraded along with new school construction, addressing a complaint about previous such proposals.

 Plans for new and revamped schools are more specific than in previous proposals; voters can see where the money will go.

 The appearance of portable classrooms at high schools has driven the need home to many who didn’t believe in it before.

 The massive shift by the Legislature of school operating costs from homeowner taxes to the sales tax will eliminate one of the greatest political barriers to school construction.

“Are we somehow facilitating growth or encouraging growth?” said Mr. White, anticipating an opposing argument. “The answer is no, we’re responding to it, and we have to respond to it. That’s our role and that’s our function.”

Mr. Fowler summed up the unified board’s position this way: “Unless we make sure we stay number one, it’s not going to happen.”

For video from our meeting and more, go to http://blogs. thestate.com/bradwarthensblog/.

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