A year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic has also galvanized a usually quiet corner of politics: the Greenville County school board.
Three women — all mothers of currently enrolled public-school students — are running to unseat incumbents who they say have not fought hard enough this year to get children back to school five days a week. Two more mothers with similar five-day platforms have filed for seats whose incumbents are stepping down this year. They face opponents backed by the retiring board members.
The five five-day moms — Dollie Collins, Ashley Martin, Angie Mosley, Jennifer Tanner and Sarah Dulin — regularly post their closely aligned positions together online. In interviews with The Post and Courier their voices were also united: the school board, whose members’ ages skew older, has lost touch since most do not have school-aged children anymore. They say the board lets administrators drive too many decisions, and too many children — especially those with special needs — are falling between the cracks.
Reading Intervention specialist Stephanie Pierce, who has decorated her face shield, greets students as they arrive at East North Street Academy in Greenville for the first day of school Monday, August 24, 2020. Bart Boatwright/Special to The Post and Courier
All in, 16 people are running for six seats, the largest field of school board candidates in a decade.
Brandon Smith was one of those 16 candidates. He suspended his campaign for the Berea-area District 19 seat last month to throw his support behind Martin, a fellow parent who is challenging 24-year incumbent Debi Bush. A fourth candidate for District 19, Charles Winfield, has withdrawn, pitting the race now between Martin and Bush.
“I think overall parents want to feel like their voice has a value, and they are not getting that impression right now,” Smith said.
District 23 school board member Glenda Morrison-Fair, who represents Nicholtown and West Greenville, goes to the polls unopposed. Also running is retired Skyline Elementary principal Carolyn Styles, who faces Collins for northern Greenville County’s District 17 seat and has the support of outgoing board member Joy Grayson. Electrical engineer and math tutor Kori Hillson faces Dulin and Warner Douzek for the District 27 Golden Strip seat that Crystal Ball O’Connor is vacating.
Styles said she has no position yet on five-day attendance, adding that circumstances could be different by the time school board members take office in January. Collins did not respond to a request for comment.
“If you go into it and already pre-determined what it is you’re trying to conquer, you may miss some of the most important priorities,” Styles said.
Hillson said candidates shouldn’t run based on the one thing they are mad about.
“The ultimate goal, and I say this to everybody, the goal is five days a week,” Hillson said. “But we still had issues with kids when we were at five days a week. You still had teachers calling up parents saying their children weren’t doing the work. So I think people acting like kids in school five days a week will fix all ails, I know it won’t. This issue has shone a light on issues that already existed. We see them even more so because of COVID.”
Dulin said parents should have had a choice for five-day schooling from day one. COVID-19, she said, woke her up to local politics.
5K teacher Ashley Strickland, along with other teachers, wears a mask and face shield while greeting students as they arrive at East North Street Academy in Greenville for the first day of school Monday, August 24, 2020. Bart Boatwright/Special to The Post and Courier
“It’s nice that so many people are finally taking note,” Dulin said. “For a long time you didn’t have to know anything about the school board. Now it even affects employers, parents, everybody. It affects a lot more than students.”
Safety must come first, Superintendent Burke Royster has countered to critics, with the backing of school board members. Academics are also important, he said this week, but run a close second. Meanwhile, he also has the health of older faculty and staff to bear in mind — groups at high risk of serious illness from coronavirus.
Results of a survey among 3,800 teachers this past week showed only about half were comfortable with face-to-face instruction at full attendance.
To date, Greenville County Schools have taken a relatively cautious approach to attendance but one mirrored throughout the state. The district has kept student numbers down in schools to ensure social distancing, and most students take classes three days a week online. The district will not return all students to schools full-time until public health metrics show low spread of coronavirus — unlikely any time soon at current infection rates.
During a press conference Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at district headquarters in downtown Greenville, Greenville County Schools Superintendent Burke Royster explains how plexiglass barriers will work in elementary schools to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
By Anna B. Mitchell
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Of the state’s 81 schools districts, according to the South Carolina Board of Education, only 16 are doing full, face-to-face instruction. Seven remained all virtual as of Thursday.
District 19 challenger Martin said Greenville County looks “like a joke” with its color-coded attendance plan, which assigns kids to days of the week according to their last names. Friends in other parts of the state, she said, call it the “Skittles plan.” She said board members should have fought Royster on behalf of those who do not have the time to help kids or the means financially to pay for extra help.
“I feel like they could have come up with something better or told him that the plan he has in place isn’t workable for working parents,” Martin said. “They rubber stamped it and thanked him for doing a bad job.”
Martin, told The Post and Courier that she and the other four five-day moms call each other daily for support and advice. She created the P.R.E.S.S. group — Parents For The Return Of Extracurriculars, School, And Sports — that has been lobbying for support locally and among conservative state lawmakers to open schools five days a week.
Bush, who has held the District 19 seat in Berea seat for 24 years, said the board is a tight-knit team that has developed a long-term improvement strategy that drives all their decisions. Running a school district can’t boil down to one issue like five-day attendance and everyone on the board wants all students back in school when it is safe, she said.
Greenville County Schools Superintendent Burke Royster addresses trustees during a school board meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. He received permission to keep schools open two days a week despite a high rate of community spread in Greenville County of the coronavirus. Pool photo provided courtesy of The Greenville News.
The power of incumbency is strong on the Greenville County school board, a body that has seen only one school board member bumped in an election since 2000.
“The single-issue people I’ve faced over the years, those kind of concern me because our school district doesn’t get better and better just off single issues,” Bush said. “We work on developing policies that reflect and are best for classrooms and students and that type of thing.”
Still, the district has shown it is flexible.
Roughly a third of parents this year took the district’s offer to keep children at home for “virtual academy” classes online. The remaining students started the year attending classes in person one day a week. That increased to two days in September even through weeks when spread of the disease remained high. Last week, first-graders resumed five-day attendance in person, and this week the district announced it is phasing in full, five-day attendance for other elementary grades by Nov. 9.
This plan, as well as five-day instruction for students with severe learning disabilities, at least partially aligns with recommendations that South Carolina Superintendent Molly Spearman issued to districts last month.
Board member Roy Chamlee, who has represented the Greer area since a special election in 2018, told The Post and Courier that he would have preferred the school year start with all elementary-aged kids in class five days a week. He cast the lone vote against the hybrid attendance plan this past summer.
The district formulated its plan over the summer when hundreds of people a day were testing positive for the virus in Greenville County — 279 new cases reported on July 11 alone. Daily counts have since declined and now average between 35 and 55.
“I made a motion a few weeks ago that we send all elementary school children back to school now,” Chamlee said. “That went nowhere.”
Both Chamlee and his two opponents, Mosley and Kimberly Rieser Wooten, argue that the medical risks posed to children from coronavirus are far outweighed by the certainty they are falling behind without face-to-face instruction.
Still, Mosley said she feels like a stronger voice should be heard on the board. Mosley has three children, two of whom are on individualized education plans to manage learning disabilities. She said she is paying tutors to keep her kids on track.
“I can’t get past the impact this is having on working families, on single parents,” she said. “I am lucky. I can leave my kids at home, but many families can’t. And many don’t have an extra mortgage payment lying around to pay for childcare.”
Piedmont-area board member Michelle Goodwin Calwile also faces a five-day mom, Tanner, for the District 25 seat. Neither women, nor a third candidate, Tabatha Mata Crawford, responded to a Post and Courier request for comment.