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A recent newspaper column written by the superintendent of Beaufort County Schools accused "usual suspects and their puppets" of trying to take over the school board.'
While Herman Gaither's column in the Feb. 26 through March 10 issue of the Gullah Sentinel does not specify who the "suspects" or their "puppets" are, school board members believed it referred at least in part to Citizens About Better Schools. The group formed earlier this year with the goal of having more candidates run in school board elections.'
The superintendent also claimed that race is a factor in the dispute over school board member Laura Bush's two-year term, an assertion that board member Rick Caporale called "disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst."'
Caporale said the column fit a general pattern of inflammatory statements from Gaither.'
"He's done this before, he's played this race card before, I'm tired of it," Caporale said. "As Mr. Gaither's tenure as superintendent has gone on, this has been a more common refrain."'
The takeover charge is preceded by a reference to the school board as "the last entity in Beaufort County where African-Americans have influence" and followed by a call to "not allow the gains earned over years of struggle to be lost."'
Gaither does not specify whether he was referring to Citizens About Better Schools nor whether he wrote the column as a private citizen or as superintendent. He did not return repeated calls to his office and home or an e-mail for comment on Thursday.'
Several school board members believed the takeover assertion was aimed at Citizens About Better Schools. The same sentence of the column that apparently refers to the group also refers to Bush's term.'
"The community should be aware of the effort to deny a full term to an African-American member of the school board from Bluffton," Gaither wrote, "we should question and rebuke the establishment of committees designed to pick the candidates that are to run for the Board of Education, and we should openly acknowledge that the Board of Education is the last entity in Beaufort County where African Americans have influence."'
Board member Pam Edwards, however, said the issues of Bush's term and Citizens About Better Schools have nothing to do with each other.'
Bush has maintained that she ran for and was elected to a four-year seat.'
"Obviously there's been a mistake made," she said Thursday. "I'm working to get that corrected and I don't want to comment on that any further."'
State lawmakers approved special legislation in June 2002 that states that in that year's general election, the Beaufort County Board of Education's District 4 candidate would run for a two-year term.'
Tom Hatfield, chairman of the county Board of Elections and Voter Registration, has said the decision to shorten the term was part of an effort to balance the number of board members who come up for election in a general election year. Four seats are up for election this year and seven seats in 2006. The District 4 term will be four years starting with the 2004 election.'
While Bush's seat was one of the issues highlighted by the superintendent, much of the portion of the column relating to education focused on the recruiting of candidates for school board elections, Citizens About Better Schools' primary mission.'
Flo Rosse, a board member from Hilton Head Island, said it was Citizens About Better Schools, not Gaither's column, that has been divisive.'
"We are a nonpartisan school board, they're the ones creating the divisiveness here," Rosse said. "They're a committee that is trying to change the makeup of the board to suit their political goals."'
By not naming the group, she said, "Mr. Gaither was probably trying to protect himself and I don't blame him."'
Edwards said she had no doubt that Citizens About Better Schools was the target of Gaither's accusations. "I wasn't really upset when I read the article," she said, "but I was surprised to read these things publicly, but like I said, that's his right."'
Caporale, however, said blanket assertions are unfair.'
"When you point your finger at someone, point it at somebody, don't point it at everybody," he said. "Maybe Gaither ought to come to a CABS meeting."'
Citizens About Better Schools chairman Tom Conner said the comments didn't accurately apply to his group.'
"Unless somebody's willing to say that this is Citizens About Better Schools, I don't know who he's talking about," Conner said. "He must be talking about somebody, but I don't know who it is."'
He called the insinuations "... a shadowy rumor that will take on its own life."'
"If he identifies the group and it happens to be the group that I'm representing, I'll deal with it," he said. "That comment just gets people wondering what's going on."'
The group, formed in January, has about 30 committee members and four leadership team members. Conner said its meetings never have and never will be closed to anybody.'
While not wanting to comment specifically about the column, school board chairman Earl Campbell said the board members are doing a good job and he believed the committee is more concerned with control than education.