Stage set for historic Charleston County School Board race

Published: Aug. 15, 2022 at 4:02 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 15, 2022 at 6:23 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Filing for the Charleston County School Board of Trustees election closed Monday, paving the way for a historic election with potentially more candidates than ever.

At noon, when the filing window closed, there were more than 30 candidates signed up to run for nine seats.

“It’s a personal decision for me. I have a two kids that are going to go into Charleston County Public Schools. They’re going to rely on the education they get here to inform the rest of their lives.,” Dist. 3 candidate Ashley Peele said. “It’s really important to me that they go somewhere where they’re going to get a quality education that’s going to prepare them for whatever they want to do after school.”

This year’s election is unique in that all nine seats are up for grabs after a change by the state legislature forced board members to be elected from the same districts as Charleston County Council members.

At most, that means three of the current board members could retain their seats. Many are fighting against other incumbents, while some will have tough fights against former board members, like Kevin Hollinshead and Chris Collins, who filed hours before the deadline closed. Collins lost a reelection bid in 2020, but says he’s ready for a comeback.

“The format is different because where you’re voting now represents a specific group of people, not county-wide,” Collins said. “So a lot of people who vote have to kind of know you a little bit and will be somewhat more familiar with you and I hope that works to my advantage and they know I’m a good person and they can rely on me.”

The 35 candidates have crowded many of the races. District 2, for example, has seven candidates. District 8 has six candidates vying for one seat. The race also features two sitting board members – board Chairman Eric Mack and Helen Frazier.

“I am coming into this race with over 20 years in the district as an employee and working within the system to make sure that we are delivering,” Frazier said. “We have a billion-dollar industry here and yet, Jonny can’t read. We are here to tell the public that we need to start focusing on our future.”

Another special feature of this race is the length of the terms. Board members elected in the odd-numbered districts will have a four-year term. Those in even-numbered districts will have a two-year term. Starting in 2024, all board members will run for four-year terms. The staggering terms means only half of the board will be up for reelection in each cycle.

Many candidates have made parental rights the center point on of their campaigns. Ed Kelley, running in District 2, has three children all under 5 years old. He says right now he doesn’t feel confident sending his kids to a Charleston County school.

“Ultimately, the job of parenting is not that of administrators or teachers, it’s that of the parents,” Kelley said. “If parents are going to entrust teachers with their children’s minds they absolutely have to have a voice in it. . . Parents have blindly trusted for too long and when the curtain got pulled back during covid a lot of parents were like ‘oh my goodness. I had no idea my child was being brainwashed with all of this garbage.’”

Graham Smith, running in District 9, has two children attending a Charleston County elementary school. He says this election will put parents at the forefront.

“I think the only way to turn the page on the last two years is to give power back to the parents. They have to be able to choose what’s right for their children,” Smith said. “As a parent, I know what’s best for my boys. I trust in my ability to make the right decision for them just as I trust in the abilities of someone who makes a different decision for their children.”

Eric Thome, running in District 6, has built a career working with businesses and startups as a consultant. Recently he’s served as part of the district’s reform group Charleston Shared Future. He says the board can function a lot better.

“My number one goal is to make the board work more like a true governance board, to help set a vision for the district. To help select the next superintendent, which I think is supremely important,” Thome said. “Work with that superintendent and their leadership to set goals, empower them, give them the resources to achieve those goals and hold them accountable.”

While the legislative changes ensure that every region of Charleston County has representation, it’s also likely to confuse voters. The school district is not planning on changing the district designations for schools to match county lines, so many of the schools will be in a different district than the district represented by the person they vote for.

For example, a Stall High School is in the fourth constituent district but will be represented by the candidate from County Council District 5. West Ashley High School is in the 10th constituent district but will now be represented by a candidate from County Council District 6.

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