Trotter sounds off

1-8 Page 1A.inddBy Greg Oliver, The Journal

Editor’s note: Former School District of Pickens County board chairman Ben Trotter, who announced his resignation last month, recently sat down for an in-depth interview with veteran reporter Greg Oliver of The Journal in Seneca. The entire text of the interview and an accompanying sidebar with responses from superintendent Kelly Pew are reprinted here with permission.

COUNTY — Ben Trotter’s resignation from the Pickens County School Board became effective Feb. 1, but he said his frustrations with school district operations and even the attitude of some board members continue.

During a recent interview with The Journal, the former board chairman discussed a variety of issues he feels have led to a misconception of the board and its influence on decision-making abilities. Especially frustrating to Trotter is the recent petition seeking to oust the entire school board that includes the signatures of several active teachers.

“Some teachers are spending their time trying to figure out how to run the board rather than educating their children,” Trotter said. “I don’t mind them signing the petition, but they didn’t have to get online on school blogs and brag about it. I’ve heard you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and the board approves their contracts. I’ve heard some principals have tried to make some board members look bad.”

Trotter also refuted rumors that the reason for his resignation came from other board members, who pressured him to step down “because I was a problem with the accreditation process.” The school board recently received findings during an AdvancED accreditation visit late last year that consisted of “requiring the board to ensure that decisions and actions of the governing body ‘are ethical, free of conflict of interest and in accordance with defined roles and responsibilities’ and to ‘adhere to appropriate roles and responsibilities for the board of trustees, distinguishing between the system administrative roles and the board of trustees legislative roles.’”

Trotter said he believes the district is hurt by material that people are posting on the Internet, as well as information he said has been provided by the South Carolina School Boards Association that paints a negative picture of the Pickens County School Board. He believes all parties share in that picture.

“None of that is good right now — what the board does, what teachers do, what the public says,” Trotter said. “So how do they expect things to heal if they don’t let them? I would fight to the death to let (those circulating the petition) do it, but I hope people are smart enough to treat it as it is.”

He said the way the school district operates is different than what he had been accustomed to. He pointed out that the board has “no real power,” as the body is only required to approve the budget and policies while approving teacher hires or terminations made at the recommendation of the superintendent.

Trotter said superintendent Kelly Pew is doing a good job, calling her “the hardest-working superintendent we had.” But Trotter added that because residents are unable to reach district administration with concerns, the school board receives the brunt of their frustrations or concerns.

“If citizens and parents can’t get a hold of her, and she’s not in the office, they aren’t going to bother calling or texting her,” said Trotter. “They’re going to call board members and talk, and that impacts day-to-day operation. We, as a board, have little authority — we set the budget once a year and policies that aren’t worth a dime. But let something go south and see who gets called up and cussed out.”

What especially concerns Trotter is the lack of respect he feels teachers, administrators and even some district staff have toward the board “because they feel they don’t have to do what we say.” He is also upset over what he sees as evaluations that teachers and principals perform on one another.

“If teachers evaluate principals and principals evaluate teachers, sure, your school is going to be good,” Trotter said. “I’ve told Dr. Pew that principals are going to be their downfall because there are things going on that aren’t reported to her.

“The teachers get more respect and leniency than anyone in the district,” he added. “The administration takes care of its teachers. If they don’t respect the board, why should anyone else? If you give them everything in the world they want, give them a raise every couple of years, they’re the happiest people in the world and will roll over for you.”

When Trotter said he felt the time had come to give teachers a bonus, the district instead decided to hire a nutritional services specialist.

“How many ways can you eat a pizza or an apple?” said Trotter.

While the building program was already approved in 2006, Trotter and the current board have had to continually deal with issues regarding newly constructed facilities, as well as existing, aging facilities in a building program nearing $400 million. Those issues, he said, have monopolized the board’s time and taken away from more pressing issues, such as how to better educate students and move the district toward its 80 percent graduation goal.

Two things in particular have especially rankled Trotter when it comes to facilities: the number of capital improvement projects, totaling $13 million, that he feels should have been addressed earlier and a second middle school for Easley.

But Trotter didn’t spare fellow board members from criticism, especially when it comes to the Gettys Middle issue.

“We argued, argued and argued and it took the whole year,” Trotter said. “It’s been a hassle.”

The Gettys Middle issue, which now includes trying to decide whether to keep or sell the property, is one on which Trotter has been especially critical of the board as a whole — saying it is just another example of members’ inability to get along.

“I understand the U.S. Constitution took 11 years to get everyone with the same mindset, but this board could work quicker than that,” he said.

Trotter also accused several board members for what he said were their efforts to have a charter school located in the former Gettys Middle School, located on Stewart Drive. A vote has since been delayed to give district administration more time to study the issue and come up with a recommendation for the property.

“They had no authority, no permission to do it without permission from the full board,” Trotter said.

Trotter believes the district’s accreditation efforts “will work out” and feels the district would be in much better shape “if everyone’s mind is on educating children.” He also expressed hope that Pew’s three-year contract extension received several months ago will “let her dig in” and make changes that are needed.

“There are some board members that don’t like what she’s done, but I believe she’s done the best she can with what she’s had,” he said.

Despite the fact that he had already planned not to seek re-election and his four-year term had less than a year remaining, Trotter said he decided it was time for a new voice to be heard on the board.

“I figured that it I got off the board, maybe someone else could go in there and make them listen,” Trotter said.

While Trotter admitted he has received much criticism for not attending graduation ceremonies in his Liberty district, he feels his reason is justified.

“I’m not going to go there and look some kid in the eye and know they were passed just to get rid of them,” he said.  “All of us — the board, district, teachers and principals — need to work together, but that’s not going to happen. They all want to be the daddy rabbit.”