February 4, 2014
Below is the full letter sent to Gov. Nikki Haley by Robin Nelson Miller. The letter was posted on the Facebook page for Concerned Citizens of Pickens County:
LETTER TO GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY FROM A CONCERNED CITIZEN OF PICKENS COUNTY:
January 28, 2014
Governor Nikki Haley
Office of the Governor
1205 Pendleton Street
Columbia, SC 29201
Dear Governor Haley,
Let me begin by thanking you for taking a moment to read this letter. I am writing as a concerned parent alarmed by the 49-page AdvancEd report that the Pickens County School District released last week. I am a stay-at-home mom of two little first-graders who attend a wonderful elementary school in Pickens County, SC. My husband and I bought our home in 2010 after considering lots of different communities in the Upstate. As you might imagine, the quality of the schools combined with the proximity to Greenville made Pickens County an easy decision. I love it here. My children love it here. My husband and I have every intention of staying here. The prospect of our school district losing its accreditation despite the many achievements by teachers and principals seems laughable, yet overwhelming evidence presents that loss as a very real possibility.
Until now, I have considered my vote to be an adequate contribution to the political culture in Pickens County, but I now realize that I have a greater responsibility which includes getting to know my school district’s Board of Trustees. Over the course of the past few days, I have read everything I can find to read about the board, its members, their (collective) practices, policies and general attitudes in an effort to gain a better understanding of the situation. I have been directed to videos of SDPC board meetings as well as frequent posts on a blog hosted by Board of Trustees Chairman Alex Saitta. I have read through opposing views on “The Voice of Pickens County” as well as comments from various interest groups and editorials in the local papers. I have reviewed the voting records of our trustees and the implications of their decisions. I have researched SC legislature and have read Article 59 in its entirety. I have spoken with lots of different teachers and principals from different schools. I have no affiliation with any of the members of our board of trustees and have the benefit of a truly unbiased opinion with regard to political alliances, given our relatively recent move to the area. I have searched for any evidence that the members on the board of trustees has given their best effort to improve education in Pickens County. Our board does indeed seem to be split: Dr. Herbert Cooper, Mr. Jim Shelton and Mrs. Judy Edwards have demonstrated a genuine knowledge of the jobs they were elected to perform, and their voting records indicate a genuine understanding of what the teachers face in the classroom. Their attitudes and comments demonstrate respect for teachers and families in our district. On the other hand, Mr. Alex Saitta and Mr. Jimmy Gillespie inspire very little confidence as their voting records demonstrate a general malaise with regard to education in Pickens County. Mr. Alex Saitta uses his position to make public statements that demonstrate his lack of respect for teachers and district employees in general.
My initial research regarding the ramifications of the loss of accreditation led me to the 2008 story involving the school district of Clayton, Georgia and the devastating impact the loss of accreditation had on that community. It was the governance of the board of trustees, not academics, that resulted in the revocation of accreditation. “We had to stand by and watch that situation unravel, powerless to do anything when it was obvious that the local board was not doing its job.” (Phil Jacobs, former president At&T, Southeastern Division, June 2009) . Shortly after the school district lost its accreditation, Governor Sonny Perdue removed four board members from office. Since that time, an effort to prevent the loss of accreditation from occurring has resulted in the development of an oversight committee at the State level to mentor trustees and to enact proactive measures for removing problem board members who demonstrate an inability to effectively fulfill their obligations. I do not pretend to understand South Carolina legislation regarding the removal of a trustee but do not believe we currently have a provision for mentoring nor removing school board members at the local level. Nonetheless, I am confident that you will do whatever your office permits to ensure that Pickens County maintains accreditation. If you are wondering why parents are so concerned, please allow me to explain.
On Monday, January 27, our board discussed and voted on a proposal to repair rooftops and HVAC systems in the district. Three of the five board members present had reviewed the proposal and were prepared to approve it. Those who opposed the vote presented arguments about the necessity to conserve district funds that were otherwise collecting interest and proposed no concrete alternative for repairing our schools. These gentlemen also emphasized a lingering resentment over an aggressive building plan that took place in recent years (and resulted in four new high schools). When Superintendent Kelly Pew emphasized the likelihood that the schools in need of repairs would close if the repairs were further neglected, comments could be heard throughout the room of “let them close the schools then” by members of the local taxpayers association. You can understand why parents are concerned. To defend the preservation of a budget surplus that is collecting interest when we have mold growing in our classrooms and building interiors that are deteriorating due to neglect is to disregard our teachers and students and families. There is no mention in Article 59 of the penalty for neglecting needs in the school district that put our students at risk, thus our concern.
I realize the solution that our legislators intended for this situation: for informed citizens to show up at the polls and elect candidates who will do the job they are elected to do. However, our current system for electing school board trustees and holding them accountable does not actually give our democratic process the best possible chance for success. Our system currently allows trustees to govern despite demonstrable apathy for how their decisions affect our schools, students and families. There is no mechanism for disciplining those board members nor for removing them. The vocal minority in the SDPC is proving their ability to hold the conscientious members of our school board, our superintendent, our district employees, students and families hostage in this accreditation process, and parents in Pickens County now understand how powerless Mr. Jacobs and other community leaders in Georgia felt back in 2008.
In 2007 the SC legislature eliminated three at-large seats, which created the six-member board that is in place now. There is currently a bill in the Pickens County Legislative Delegation that would add a seventh, at-large member back to the board of trustees for the School District of Pickens County. Originally, there were two such bills. One was voted down. Phil Owens, chairman of the Pickens County Legislative Delegation, said the second bill remains in the local delegation until he calls it back to the House calendar. I have written Mr. Owens and am encouraging other parents to do the same. Governor Haley, I speak for many parents who are willing to do whatever we can do to be a part of a solution that will not only ensure that we maintain our accreditation currently but that will promote a healthier, more effective Board of Trustees in Pickens County going forward.
For the past few days, I have spent a considerable amount of time trying to communicate my concerns for our school district to our board members. I feel quite certain that I made it evident in a letter that I sent to board members on Monday that parents need to hear from the board regarding the pressing issue of our district’s accreditation. Chairman Alex Saitta’s response in the board meeting Monday night mirrored his written response to me earlier that day when he casually stated that the district has hired a consultant to help them accomplish the actions and improvements required by AdvancEd. I hope you can understand that the parents in Pickens County find a general statement lacking and need more information such as the name of the consultant, the precise plan for meeting AdvancEd’s requirements for improvement, the cost to the district for the expertise of the consultant, etc. Please allow me to offer you the benefit of a parent’s perspective. The board of trustees in Clayton, Georgia’s school district also insisted (and families believed them) that they were going to do whatever was necessary to prevent the revocation of the district’s accreditation. But they were unable to do the about-face necessary to satisfy the accrediting agency’s requirements and the district lost its accreditation.
Having our accreditation revoked is not an option for families in Pickens County. The halls of my children’s school are adorned with awards and certificates of achievement. The teachers and administrators strive for excellence and spend significant amounts of personal time and money to ensure the success of the students as well as the school. The parent volunteers in our schools work tirelessly to support the endeavors of our teachers and students and administrative staff. There is mutual respect between our district employees and superintendent. But a couple of our board members have dismissed the importance of education in Pickens County. If the Board of Trustees is the weak link that stands between my children and their success as students, then as a mother, I have no choice but to focus my efforts on helping the District strengthen the board.
Parents are urging board members to prioritize their loyalties with regard to creating a surplus in our budget or keeping campaign promises to taxpayers. We are insisting that each member of the Board of Trustees focus on issues that promote education in Pickens County. We are reminding trustees of the responsibilities they accepted UNDER OATH: providing schoolhouses for our children, hiring (and keeping) qualified teachers, establishing scholastic standards of achievement, and so on and so forth according to Article 59. Concerned parents ask: What difference does it make that our board has balanced the district’s budget or put a few dollars in savings if our children can’t apply for college with the degrees they receive from our schools? Who benefits if the most vocal board members helped to fill the chairs on the board with people who share their political views if the current growth halts and suddenly we find our commercial properties vacant? What difference does it make that current members “stuck it to the old school board” and held them accountable for overbuilding if the current board hasn’t used the revenue to IMPROVE the quality of education that our children receive?
Governor Haley, what we want from our board members is ethical, imitable, professional behavior that emphasizes the importance of education in Pickens County and sets the stage for explosive growth and opportunity in our school district. Our immediate request is simply to get answers to a few key questions which can help us better formulate a plan of action:
1. Who is the consulting firm hired by the Board of Trustees to help overcome the governance issues?
2. What is the precise plan of action for satisfying the “actions” required by AdvancEd to maintain accreditation?
3. What is the cost to the district for this service?
4. What are the long term plans for ensuring that our Board of Trustees demonstrates an irrefutable and genuine knowledge of the job they were elected to do?
5. What role can concerned parents play in the ongoing oversight of the governance of the SDPC board of trustees?
I believe in our system of government Governor Haley and I believe that you will provide a mechanism that prevents the school district of Pickens County from suffering the same fate as that of Clayton, Georgia in 2008.
Thank-you again Governor Haley. We are in desperate need of your assistance. Please do not hesitate to contact me or have someone on your staff contact me at your convenience.
Robin Nelson Miller