Phoning It InWest Ashley’s Dist. 10 Constituent School Board dealing with external and internal pressures
April 29, 2017
By Bill Davis | News Editor
Two members of the West Ashley’s District 10 Constituent School Board attended a meeting last week on their phones. No, they weren’t glued to social media, they were literally calling-in to the meeting.
Jennifer Osteen and Henry Copeland were present only electronically, as cell phones had been placed on a table within reach of board colleagues David Childress and Cynthia Anderson, and had their speakerphones turned on.
Osteen was calling-in locally, and Copeland, the board’s vice-chair, from Anderson, S.C. As a result of their physical absence, neither Copeland or Osteen were allowed to take part in student disciplinary hearings later in closed executive session.
The Dist. 10 board is charged with overseeing a smaller portion of public schools’ issues than the CCSD board, like student discipline, attendance zones, and the like.
This situation of missing members has become more of the reality than the exception for the Dist. 10 Board, according to several board members and regular attendees. So much so that member David Childress this night proposed a policy change that would force absentee members to present medical excuses for their absences.
Childress later singled out Copeland, saying that lately the latter had been missing more and more regularly scheduled board meetings.
“If for any reason I was not about to fulfill, in person, my position, I would resign my position,” said Childress later. “I would step down for someone to take over out of respect for the position, the board, and the public.”
Both Osteen and Copeland, have informally informed board chair Rodney Lewis of their plight, who said at the meeting that their privacy should be maintained. (Both have also since shared their reasons with West Of, and their privacy will be maintained here, also.)
Osteen, who had taken a leave of absence last month, said the next day that she will be able to return to scheduled meetings beginning this week.
Copeland said that as his medical condition improves he hopes to return full-time beginning in August.
Copeland later deflected much of the criticism surrounding his absences, saying that it’s really CCSD’s fault because they have refused to lend this board technology that would allow him to “Skype in” to the meeting. He also said the county school district routinely gives inaccurate information to his board.
Lewis agreed with the idea that Childress’ motion was an attempt to force Copeland’s hand, who has had issues with regular attendance going back several years. Lewis said that that there was “nothing new” with public board members using technology to “attend” meetings, as it happens on the county level on a regular basis.
Copeland and Osteen were able to listen in and chime in on what may be the most important issue facing the board this year: redrawing the Stono Park Elementary School attendance zone.
More neighborhoods and their kids are needed to bump up the school’s student population numbers to make the $20 million-plus county outlay worth the construction of the new school.
Following a bitter public fight to have the school rebuilt by the Charleston County School District, rather than razed and absorbed into other West Ashley schools, the battlefield has now moved onto the question of what neighborhoods would be added to the school’s zone.
Attendance-zone battle lines have been drawn along social, racial, and neighborhood boundaries. Stono Park is a Title I school that primarily welcomes poorer black students and churns out enviable achievement test scores.
Some in the community have worried that its white families won’t want to send their kids to Stono Park, while others groused before the meeting that the Dist. 10 board was poised to add in only poor black neighborhoods to avoid the white backlash of parents intent on their kids attending another elementary.
But that’s not what worked out, as the Dist. 10 Board voted to include two white-majority neighborhoods into the Stono Park attendance zone. The zone they approved was so awkwardly outlined that it resembled a profile of Fred Flintstone, with one of the new neighborhoods disconnected off to the side.
The disconnected piece either looks like an incongruent “island,” to borrow Childress’s word, or a thought bubble where the eldest Flintstone would vent.
But those inclusions seemed to be the only thing that worked out, with Dist. 10 board members fighting through that night’s agenda and strained intra-board relations.
School board animosity is nothing new in Charleston, with the CCSD board firing superintendents in front-page moves, the overuse of the word “micromanagement,” and turf battles between its political factions being staples of how it has conducted its business over the years.
And the Dist. 10 board has followed suit, seemingly, with a series of members leaving the board, reshuffling of its chair, and sniping between members in recent years. Animosity between Childress and Copeland was evident during the meeting.
The next day, Childress explained the reasoning for his policy change.
“The point I was trying to make is that when we are elected to office to represent our constituents or district, there is an expectation the public has that when it comes to a meeting to see whether you come or not,” he said.
“They want to see how we interact in person, and when someone is on the telephone they cannot judge what is going on in the room,” said Childress, adding that the board needs policy to deal with this situation.
Childress said that, ultimately, how the Dist. 10 board is shaped in the future is out of his hands. “When the public has had enough, they will let us know.”
Stono Park parent Julie Hord tried to share her concerns with the Dist. 10 board, but was cut off by Copeland, who reminded the chair that “the public comment session is closed.”
Reached the next day while she shopped for dinner at the Bi-Lo, Hord said her point “was to counter the idea that it is none of the public’s business” why a board member was not present.
“It is the public’s business,” Hord said as her kids called out for snacks. “You are an elected official and if you are continuously not showing up for meetings, then the public has a right to know if you’re not showing up (for a reason) or if you just don’t feel like showing up.”
Hord said she has been a regular attendee at board meetings, especially this year, and added that “this was a pretty calm one” as chair Lewis had been known to “hang up the phone” on Copeland.
Copeland said later he and the chairman had worked through their differences over the past two years.
During the meeting, Copeland challenged CCSD staffers in attendance about the timeline of Stono Park’s construction, claiming that he’d been told it would be ready a year earlier than the published timeline. His claim was denied by staffers and every other member of the board that was present, physically and electronically.
Copeland also called for a workshop to be scheduled for the Dist. 10 board for later in the year during the meeting he was not physically able to attend.
Reached later in Anderson, Copeland shared his displeasure that members of the public had called him at his government job there, and then posted complaints on social media. He claims that he wouldn’t put it past some in the community to call his day job and try and get him fired.
In the past, Copeland once squabbled with school board staff to the point he was barred for a time from attending meetings at the downtown constituent board.
Asked why he remains on the Dist. 10 board despite his health issues and resulting attendance record, Copeland said, in part that, “I have something to offer that no one else has, and no one else has come forward.”