Charleston Co. School Board effort to replace controversial curriculum fails

Nonprofit EL Education says it focuses on reading education through a lens of equity and inclusion. But its opponents argue it promotes "woke" ideology.
Published: Feb. 21, 2023 at 5:18 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 22, 2023 at 8:19 AM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The Charleston County School Board voted in support of a controversial curriculum that drew huge crowds of parents and teachers to the last two meetings.

EL Education, formerly known as Expeditionary Learning, is an initiative that seeks to build mastery of knowledge and skills, character and high-quality work, according to the K-12 nonprofit EL Education. The group has partnered with school districts across the country and serves approximately 440,000 students nationwide.

The organization says it focuses on reading education through a lens of equity and inclusion as well as social emotional learning. But its opponents argue that it pushes a “woke” ideology.

The curriculum was adopted last year after staff reviewed a number of reading programs but has raised concerns among staff and parents in the district.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, the school board attempted to start a process that would replace EL Education for the 2023-24 school year. However, the vote failed 3-6 after district Superintendent Don Kennedy said it would be impossible for the district to undergo a new review process of other programs and have it ready to be implemented in August.

Board elects new chair, vice chair

The school board elected a new chairman for the third time since the November election in a specially-called meeting. Board members voted on a chair and vice chair ahead of the regularly scheduled Committee of the Whole meeting.

Charleston County School Board re-elected Pam McKinney as board chair and Carlotte Bailey as vice chair once again after Ed Kelley held the position for about a week. After a potential violation of the Freedom of Information Act during the Feb. 13 meeting in which Kelley was elected, he called for the election to be redone and then promptly nominated McKinney for the chairmanship.

The only significant change was Leah Whatley’s appointment of the board member in charge of the Strategic Education Committee. It was chaired by Carol Tempel but Whatley appointed Carlotte Bailey to the position. The move came after Tempel voted with the bloc of board members opposed to the chairmanships of McKinney and Whatley including Courtney Waters, Darlene Dunmeyer-Roberson and Daron Calhoun II.

Tuesday’s meeting comes after last-minute changes to the agenda last week were not properly updated on the publicly posted agenda in the hallway outside of the meeting room. While the online agenda was updated in compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, which requires agenda items be published 24 hours in advance of a meeting, the printed agenda was never updated. Board members and the district’s legal team determined it’s up for interpretation as to whether or not the FOIA was violated.

Last week a special meeting was called to elect a new board chair after Daron Calhoun II was sworn in, triggering the new election per board and state policy. However, the current chairperson at the time, Pam McKinney, added an agenda item for the special meeting that would have postponed the rule requiring new chair elections late in the week preceding the meeting. While that item was added to the digital agenda, it was not added to the paper copy outside.

The board approved McKinney’s motion. However, after legal counsel, it had to be altered to only postpone the vice-chair election since state law requires an election for the chair, but not the vice chair when a new person is added to the board and the trustees can’t subvert state law.

Ed Kelley was elected board chair in a split 5-4 decision. Notably, Kelley voted against himself in that election.

Because of the potential FOIA violation, last week’s regular board meeting was ended directly after public comments and no action was taken on any of the agenda items.

In a letter to board members, Kelley wrote, “I fully recognize this is uncomfortable and embarrassing for us, but I do believe there is nothing more important than complete public transparency in all we do.”

Last year the district, under a different board, ran into a similar issue with agendas being altered last minute that garnered the attention of Attorney General Alan Wilson.

Board members also looked at the calendar for the 2023-2024 school year.

The district’s website states the board is expected to approve an academic calendar survey between two options. The major difference between the two is when the week of spring break will be. If approved, the survey is scheduled to be open Wednesday through Sunday.

The board agenda states 70 employees completed a survey about the calendar already.