Last month, days after being elected to the Lexington 1 school board, Jada Garris toured the recently renovated Pelion Elementary. It was clean, bright and sleek, but also jarring.
The tour, led by school officials, was her first task as a board member, and she’d heard workers stayed on campus until 6:30 the night before to get everything ready for her and other school board members.
That upset her. She thought of other schools, like Pelion Middle School, where Garris said there is “brown water, broken bathroom floor tiles and mold everywhere.”
“What you’re doing for the board members, you should be doing for the students,” Garris said.
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The district had a different story when asked if finishing touches were rushed to make the school presentable for head honchos. The principal had started at the school in June, district spokesperson Mary Beth Hill wrote in an email, and the work was not done “specifically” for a board visit.
The situation surrounding the school tour was just the latest in a string of moments when Garris has bumped heads with leaders of the district that encompasses Gilbert, Pelion, the town of Lexington and the River Bluff and White Knoll attendance areas.
For the past four years, Garris, 40, has been a frequent critic of how, when, where and why the district makes decisions affecting thousands of students and families. Her condemnation of Lexington 1’s behaviors goes so far that she filed a lawsuit, which is still pending.
“The people with the least amount of front-line experience have the most amount of power in this district, and we really, really have to stop that,” she said.
After November’s election, the outsider scratching her way toward information on the inside has seemingly unbridled access to what goes on in Lexington 1, beginning with executive session discussions at her first meeting on Dec. 18.
Garris is the person who digs through district spending and policy in her spare time. She has been vocal in questioning district business ranging from the Pelion land deal in May to how personnel complaints are handled.
Now, she takes helm of the same district she’s scrutinized, alongside board members whose views she hasn’t always shared.
“I told Jada the view is very different from inside the fishbowl than outside the fishbowl,” said board member Anne Marie Green, who was elected in 2016.
Garris says she brings a new perspective because she was a school bus driver for six years in Gilbert, which she describes as a “Friday night football town” on the fringes of a wealthy behemoth of a district.
She was elected to one of three open board seats with 20 percent of the votes. Her platform centered on serving as a surrogate for students, teachers, parents and others who are “in the trenches.”
“Those people need a voice. They need someone to call them back when they’re emailing their board members, you know? And they get nothing,” she said.
Superintendent Gregory Little said all new board members have a moment of realization when they first start. The district has 30,000 students and 31 schools — and soon more, thanks to a building plan approved by voters in November.
“They always discover that the scope of the work is even more significant than they look at from the outside. There is a greater appreciation for the work that gets done,” he said.
Most of the board didn’t want to discuss Garris’ election, noting that Lexington 1 is also welcoming two other new members: Kyle Guyton and Tim Oswald.
Reese McCurdy was a newcomer who ran in the November election and lost. He said he called Garris after the election and they had an hourlong discussion about her next steps: how she can usher in the change she envisions.
“She’s got to figure out how to create some alliances within the group,” McCurdy said. “If she doesn’t, it’s going to be a long, hard four years.”
The other candidate who lost in November, Chris Rice, said he recognized Garris’ passion while on the campaign trail and her desire to ask tough but necessary questions. Yet to make the new board dynamic function, Garris and the district will have to meet somewhere in the middle, he said.
“Jada will probably have to curb things a little bit and actually ask questions, not just in an accusatory tone,” Rice said. “And the existing board is going to have to not have their defenses up every time she asks a question.”
Jada: The bus driver, the advocate
Garris’ public criticisms of the district began in 2015, when she was a school bus driver and learned of an inconspicuous change in a district policy. The district began allowing children with head lice to ride the school bus. She contacted state health officials, who told her the Lexington 1 policy flouted state guidelines, Garris said.
She later confronted the school board about the policy, even bringing to a public hearing a photo she took of two kids sleeping on the bus, touching heads.
Before the head lice issue, Garris didn’t cause any “trouble,” she said. The district had even praised her in a video for reading to students as they got on the bus after school. Garris would also send her students home with a book at the end of each school year, she said.
In 2014, the South Carolina Association of Pupil Transportation gave her its Humanitarian Award for advocating for stricter stop-arm legislation.
During the push for stop-arm legislation, Garris met Shelly Culick. Garris drove three of Culick’s children to school every day. As a resident of one of the busiest streets in Gilbert, Culick constantly saw cars passing the bus although the stop arm was out. It’s illegal to do that, but when drivers reported the violations, Garris said, nothing happened.
Culick got so upset about passing drivers endangering her children that she said recorded the cars, yelled, chased and threw water bottles. Garris took notice.
“Jada said, ‘You need to use that fire in a positive way,’” Culick said.
Garris and Culick went before the state Senate Transportation Subcommittee and spoke about the need for a tightening of stop-arm laws.
“She lights a fire in people, and she fights for truth and what’s right,” Culick said in an interview.
Around the same time, Garris used her vacation time to take a day off from work to speak with then-Gov. Nikki Haley about the stop-arm legislation at a town hall meeting hosted by Haley.
The effort was partially successful in that advocates got approval in 2014 to use stop-arm cameras to enforce the law, instead of needing a police officer to witness a violation. However, cameras are at times ineffective because inclement weather and other factors can impact video quality.
Garris’ personality earned her recognition, but her outspokenness rubbed some the wrong way. Throughout late 2015 and 2016, she complained to the district about her supervisor at the transportation office and said she was being retaliated against by Lexington 1 officials for her complaints.
When reached by phone, Garris’ supervisor at the time, Shelby Anderson, said she “was not allowed to comment” and directed all questions to the district communications office. Anderson still works in the Lexington 1 Department of Transportation.
Former Director of Transportation Tim Stepp, who is retired, said he could not comment on what it was like working with Garris.
In April 2016, Garris was put on administrative leave for two weeks. A letter from the district cited “unprofessional conduct on your part directed towards your supervisor and by electronic communication through social media.”
The reasons she was put on leave, according to documents Garris provided to The State, were a Facebook post she made “asking for the Lord’s assistance” in not “throat-punching someone.” Garris says this was a joke among Gilbert drivers. The discipline also had to do with her handling of a dispute between her and Anderson about bringing her child to work after school.
Garris was transferred.
At the start of the 2016 school year, Garris returned to her Gilbert route after finishing up the previous school year in the White Knoll area. Yet her problems with management, district administration and oversight persisted and led her to resign in March 2017.
She said she felt targeted because she advocated for other drivers, people who were scared to speak up because they couldn’t afford to lose the $150 a week paycheck.
“That wasn’t going to make or break me, but 95 percent of the bus drivers there, that is going to make or break them,” she said.
In her March 2017 resignation letter to the district, which Garris provided to The State, she wrote:
“I have used the proper channels to indicate the following claims, included but not limited to:
- harassing behavior from my superiors
- retaliation for being a whistleblower
- illegal and unethical activity”
Garris: The board member, the ‘big voice’
On a recent morning, Garris stopped by Tha Store, which is part-convenience store, part-cafe and down the street from the Gilbert school bus transportation lot where she worked. This is where Gilbert bus drivers eat breakfast together every morning, though it’s more like lunch since they wake up long before the sun.
A group of drivers is at a table in the corner, chowing down on plates of grits, fried eggs, sausage and toast. They don’t know Garris is coming, since she hasn’t been to breakfast in a while, but everyone in here knows “Jada.”
When Garris arrives, she has a full face of makeup and a pink knit cardigan on. The other drivers — all but one of whom are women — rib her for not telling them there would be a photographer from the newspaper around.
Then they slip into chatter, jumping from how the roads were so muddy that a few buses got stuck, to why Garris wasn’t at their Thanksgiving party, to how about the raise Superintendent Little got last month (2 percent plus $12,000 a year retention bonus)? Why haven’t bus drivers gotten a raise?
Garris knows details about any number of topics related to Lexington 1, so she explains some bits of information to her friends, a toned down version of her spitfire citations when anyone else asks her about district business.
She knows dollar amounts, like how much the district paid a firm to assess school demographic needs for the building plan that recently passed — $62,000 — and she knows dates, like on what day board members pledged not to respond to residents’ questions at meetings — February 11, 2017, “a Saturday.”
Sometime since the election, Garris said she was told that a board member’s work, which is unpaid, takes up a lot of time. At least one member works “30 to 40 hours a week” on board business, Garris said she was told.
“Yeah, well I do, too. I just don’t have a title,” she said.
She has Dropbox folders full of audio recordings from board meetings and discussions with district officials. She has a computer full of files — budgets, letters, emails, statements of economic interest, manuals, plans — and a shed in her backyard with more.
And she has an ongoing 15-page lawsuit against Lexington 1, which alleges the district regularly violates open records laws by failing to publish advanced notice of meetings and refusing to furnish requested records, among other issues.
“How they win is by dealing with people that aren’t persistent. Everybody drops off … the district’s used to that. That’s why they ignore people and ignore them and ignore them, because they know people are going to go away. You’re either going to run out of time, you’re going to run out of passion, you’re going to run out of energy, you’re just going to be done. But I’m here to let them know I’ve never quit anything that I’ve started. I’m not going anywhere,” she said.
Hill, the district spokesperson, said she could not comment on “ongoing litigation.”
In June, Garris ran for an open board seat in a special election. She came in fourth place out of seven candidates. But in November, she secured one of three seats with 15,232 votes.
It’s not a steady climb up the power ladder though, she said.
“I have no political ambition whatsoever. It’s just that I feel the only way that I could make a difference would be to be a board member, because talking to them isn’t changing anything, standing in front of them, speaking publicly, going on the record, writing letters to the editor, being interviewed by news stations, newspapers … ,” she said.
At breakfast at Tha Store, where the smell alternates between sizzling fat from sausage patties and steamy, bubbly pancake batter and the sounds are of a dozen tiny discussions happening simultaneously, the drivers express their hopefulness. They hope Garris will advocate for them and for people like them.
“She may be only one voice, but that’s more than we had,” says driver KellyAnn Lamb, as she knits hats for some of “her children,” which is how all of them refer to the students they drive.
“And she’s a big voice,” adds Carla George, who has driven a bus for two decades.
Garris finishes up her usual order, a BLT with hashbrown potatoes, and promises to meet the others for Friday lunch. She drives down the road to the transportation office, rattling off kids’ names and stories as she passes their homes, on her way to pay a visit to her old bus, D23.
“I love that sound,” she says, walking through the lot. A bus on the other side of the lot roared awake. The old ones make those deep-throated noises she likes more than the new ones, she says.
The ceiling of her old beloved bus is stripped now of all the student drawings she used to have taped to it. She hasn’t been in this bus in almost two years, she said, but she walks down the center aisle, checking in each seat as if she just finished her route for the day, peeking into the corners where she knew certain riders would stuff snack wrappers although they weren’t allowed to eat on the bus. It’s like muscle memory.
She runs her hand on the dashboard. “There’s my Velcro for my clock,” she said. “Oh, they got a new fan, too.” Hers would always fall apart and dangle, she said.
Standing on the last step in the doorway, Garris takes it all in.
“Every day I miss it,” she said.