BCSD Board Member reflects on first two years in office
In November of 2014, when Berkeley County School Board (BCSB) candidate Mac McQuillin defeated opponent Rindy Ryan in the hotly contested race to fill the District 2 seat vacated by Doug Cooper, the Board was embroiled in controversy. At the time, the district was under investigation for ethics violations involving the 2012 $198 million ‘Yes 4 Schools’ campaign, and the very night McQuillin was sworn in to his new post, the Board voted unanimously to accept then-Superintendent Rodney Thompson’s request to resign.
And as evidenced by the reported confession earlier this month of former BCSD Chief Financial Officer Brantley Thomas that beginning in July of 2012 he’d pilfered nearly $400,000 from the district, along with his subsequent firing on February 7, controversy, it seems, is still a fact of life for the school board.
For McQuillin, the bad press the district has garnered over the years is one unfortunate aspect of governance at the county level and one he and his colleagues continue to fight. And, admittedly, the fight has taken a toll on the attorney and Daniel Island resident, but McQuillin has a simple remedy for coping with the challenging days he sometimes en“Every year I get these,” begins McQuillin, who, sitting in a conference room at his downtown law firm Haynsworth, Sinkler, Boyd, pulls out a pile of notes of appreciation written to the BCSB members by district students. “I have a stack in my office at my house of thank you letters from kids.”
“At times that can be difficult, and this F.B.I. investigation into Brantley Thomas has been a perfect example,” McQuillin continues. “But going back to these thank-you cards, it reenergizes you. I kind of knew going into it that it was going to be a time commitment and I was going to be in the public eye. Those were things I expected. What I don’t think I expected was the large-scale governance of it and how difficult the governance of it would be. The events of last week are a perfect example of that.”
Though he’s a lawyer, McQuillin does not provide legal advice to the board. But he says he does utilize his legal training to inform how he votes, and perhaps more importantly how the district operates. McQuillin has advised the district on best practices, implementing simple things like teleconferencing with district lawyers instead of hiring them to drive from Columbia at $200 an hour. The end result, according to McQuillin, is money that was spent on legal fees is being injected directly back into schools – and that is something he’s proud of.
“What I campaigned on and what I still firmly believe is it’s very good to have a diversity of experience on the Board, and the Berkeley County School District was in the paper and got a lot of bad press about how much they were spending on legal fees,” says McQuillin. “And since I’ve been on the board I do feel like what I have in a legal mind has benefited the board. Specifically, one tangible way it has is we’ve reduced legal fees for the two years I’ve been on the board between $6,000 and $10,000 every month. That’s a total of $240,000 for our students and teachers that was going to lawyers.”
McQuillin is quick to remind, however, that he didn’t seek his position on the School Board to merely help the district save money or make sound, legally-thoughtful decisions aided by his experience. His true task on the Board is to serve not just the district’s $300 million budget, but also it’s more than 30,000 students and 4,000 employees.
“I would expect the public to hold me accountable first and foremost based on our student achievement,” he continues. “That’d be the number one thing. The number two thing is that we’re being a good steward of public tax dollars. And I’m not just talking about tax increases, but how we’re spending that money. Is that money going to salaries at the district office or is that money going into our children’s classrooms and to the teachers, so that we can recruit and retain excellent teachers in Berkeley County?”
“I feel like we have made a difference for the better of the district, whether that’s increasing transparency, restoring the public trust, reducing legal fees, and most importantly increasing student achievement,” adds McQuillin. “We’re at an all-time high right now in terms of student achievement. Daniel Island is outperforming the state at almost every level.”
And when it comes to points of pride for McQuillin and District 2, they’re not limited to Daniel Island. In fact, the introduction of the new Philips Simmons schools on budget and on time represents perhaps the best and brightest feather in the cap of the current Board. The new Philips Simmons Elementary and Middle Schools opened in August of 2016 and the new Philips Simmons High School will open this August, providing the residents of Cainhoy, the Clements Ferry Road corridor, and all of District 2 another high-quality public school option.
“The Superintendent and I went to the last informational meeting for parents and there were probably 150 parents there, most of which have students who are in private school now at Bishop England or otherwise,” says McQuillin. “And so, there’s a real interest in Daniel Island parents with high school students attending public school for the first time because it’s a new school and they have trust in the district.”
For all the success of his first two-and-a-half years in office however, McQuillin defers to the community. It is the communal atmosphere inherent in District 2, he argues, that makes his job all the easier.
“Whether its talking to (City of Charleston) Councilman Gary White about an issue, talking to (Berkeley County) Councilman (Josh) Whitley about how the county can help with something, I think District 2 is unique in that we all have good working relationships with each other as well as with the community resources like the Daniel Island Company or the Daniel Island Community Fund or the Daniel Island Rotary,” McQuillin says. “That’s how public schools work. They are a community effort…and we are very blessed with (Philips Simmons Elementary School Principal) Dr. (Karen) Whitley, Principal (Anthony) Dixon (of Philips Simmons Middle School) and Dr. (James) Spencer (of Philips Simmons High School). We have, in my opinion, three of the best principals in the district right there, and the same with (Daniel Island School Principal) Kori Brown on Daniel Island.”
Mac McQuillin is the first to admit that serving the people of District 2 on the BCSB is a job that comes with its ups and downs, but the youthful attorney shows no signs of cracking under the relentless pressure often associated with public office. Glancing down at the thank you cards lying out in front of him as if for reassurance, McQuillin is full of conviction when talking about his future on the Board.
“I’m in it for the long haul,” he says. “And I’m in it for my children and the children of Berkeley County.”