Challenger Says, “More and more money is not the answer”

A public forum giving the public an opportunity to see and hear selective views of four of six Greenville County School Board incumbents and their challengers was held at Sevier Middle School Thursday evening. The event was poorly attended and moderated by Greenville News opinion page writer and editor Beth Padget. All candidates were asked to respond to the same “soft-ball” questions. No provocative questions were  asked.

The Greenville County School Board is one of the most powerful elected bodies in South Carolina. They preside over and set salaries for thousands of well-paid jobs and are the largest employer in Greenville County. They approve an operating budget exceeding $400 million annually, and circumvented the state constitution to generate a debt of approximately $1 billion that must be paid with interest by county property owners over the next two to three decades.

The board has its own lobbying organization with a full time district employee as leader and a public information organization equal to or better than any  local government agency or private corporation. Any challenge to the current board membership perceived to be a threat to the status quo will be subject to a coordinated attack by a coalition of organizations outside the schools who are beneficiaries of the system or feeders at the public education trough.

Robert Harrison is challenging District 18 board member Pat Sudduth. Their views on the limited issues discussed during the forum were virtually identical, except that Harrison stressed that he would place more emphasis on teaching math, grammar and history. Harrison said the most important issue facing the school district is “getting information into student’s minds.”

Sudduth, who has a unique insight into school operations as a former teacher and principal,  has been an effective, independent minded board member. He is out of favor with a former board member from Greer and could face a close contest to keep his seat on the school board.

Matthew Wells, whose wife is a district elementary school teacher, is challenging Chuck Saylors in district 20. Wells is an advocate for more adequate funding reaching the classroom and “freeing up teachers to focus on teaching.”

Saylors has found fame and fortune since being elected to the Greenville County School Board. He is now president of the National PTA and Vice President of MB Kahn, one of the nation’s larger companies involved in school construction.

Challengers Harold Graves and Carole Jean Gibson who are seeking to replace Lynda Leventis-Wells and Roger Meek in Districts 22 and 26 challenged the prevailing view of school board incumbents as expressed by Leventis-Wells that the most important issue facing the school board is “funding, funding, funding.”

Gibson said, “more and more money is not the answer… I think the most important thing the school can do is teach children the basics. Education doesn’t depend on the most expensive equipment or the fanciest school building,” she stressed.

Gibson said she was “absolutely against K-4”. “God gave children to families, not to public institutions,” Gibson stressed. “A child needs an opportunity to be a child.”

She continued by stating that “studies have shown that by the time a child is 7 to 8 years old, there is no difference between those who received early Head Start or other early intervention and those who did not of the at-risk population.” Graves generally agreed with Gibson on funding and mandatory Kindergarten at age 4. Graves recalled playing marbles when he was four and five years old. And started school at age 6.  He also added an unwelcome comment about the debt created by the board for the building program.

Saylors leaned forward and blurted out his support for additional funding to include government-funded kindergarten for 4-year old children, and condemned Graves and Gibson as “flat wrong” and “hindsighted.”

All four incumbents pledged to continue to lobby the legislature for additional funds for schools during the current funding crisis as property values decrease and tax collections diminish.

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