Voters sent a clear message to the Beaufort County Board of Education on Tuesday: they want sweeping change.
Seven of the 11 school board seats were up for grabs in the election. And six new members were chosen to fill the open spots.
While four incumbents ran for re-election, only District 2’s David Striebinger eked out a win. Those who lost their seats were District 3’s Cynthia Gregory-Smalls, District 4’s Joseph Dunkle and District 7’s Evva Anderson.
Following two failed bond referendums that would have paid for school construction projects, an ongoing FBI investigation involving the construction of two Bluffton schools and the exit of the school district’s controversial superintendent Jeff Moss, new leadership is the fresh start the community wants, say council members.
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Striebinger said he sees the large-scale turnover as “a signal that the people want dramatic change.”
“I’ve been optimistic because I think we have a chance now to back to the fundamentals and reset everything,” he said.
Dunkle, who lost the district 4 seat to former Beaufort County teacher Tricia Fidrych, said he saw the results as a message that voters were looking for a change and wanted the incumbents out.
“I think the change they were looking for was exactly what I’ve been doing the past four years, but unfortunately that didn’t make it to the surface due to some other board members,” he said Wednesday.
Fidrych said she knocked on at least 400 doors leading up to the election.
In talking with residents, Fidrych said she believed her experience as a teacher and the current board’s interpersonal relationship issues gave her the leg up on Dunkle.
“The people of District 4 embraced the opportunity to speak with me about their concerns and were open to my candidacy and I thank them so much for that,” she said.
According to the unofficial results posted Wednesday morning, here were the results in each district:
- District 2: Incumbent David Striebinger won the race with 50.77 percent of the vote and challenger Terry Thomas received 48.11 percent.
- District 3: William Smith won with 51.24 percent of the vote. Incumbent Cynthia Gregory-Smalls was second with 31.16 percent. Natasha Robinson was third with 11.87 percent. And, Buryl Garnett Sumpter was fourth with 5.16 percent.
- District 4: Tricia Fidrych won the race with 60.07 percent of the vote and incumbent Joseph Dunkle received 39 percent.
- District 5: Richard Geier won the race with 30.99 percent of the votes and Stew Butler received 29.76 percent. Sarah Stuchell came in third with 22.40 percent, and Ray Johnson took fourth with 15.98 percent.
- District 7: Rachel Wisnefski won the race with 36.31 percent of the vote. Chris Davey and Evva Anderson followed closely behind with 32.73 percent and 30.31 percent of the vote respectively.
- District 8: Cathy Robine won the race with 54.08 percent of the vote. John Eddy came in second with 29.56 percent and Paul Roth was third with 16.05 percent.
- District 10: Melvin Campbell won the race with 50.49 percent of the vote. Peter Kristian received 49.13 percent.
In three of the districts, the margins came down to less than 150 votes.
Striebinger beat his opponent Terry Thomas by 121 votes, according to unofficial results.
Melvin Campbell of District 10 was chosen over Peter Kristian by 50 votes. And, Richard Geier of District 5 only beat his closest opponent Stew Butler by a mere 41 points.
Geier said Wednesday morning that he’s “not celebrating yet” due to the small margin between Butler and himself.
“Who knows if that could change,” he said. “... When the election commission posts its official results, and if I’m lucky enough to win, then I’ll celebrate.”
The results are not official until they are certified by Beaufort County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, which will occur in the coming days.
‘Bringing the board together again’
The Beaufort County school board has been scrutinized over the last few years for its in-fighting and dysfunction.
At candidate forums over the past months, nearly all the school board candidates repeatedly echoed that they wanted to improve the relationship among board members and restore public trust in the district and its governing body.
“I think the fact that all of us are coming in with that same mission and we all seem to be very positive people, I’m really hopeful that we’re going to be able to get a lot of work done and work well together,” said Rachel Wisnfeski, an educator elected in District 7.
The newly elected board members will have some important decision to make during their first year in office, including choosing a new superintendent to be a permanent replacement for Moss, creating a potential referendum to deal with overcrowding in Bluffton schools and rebuilding public trust among the community in order to lock in the funding needed to expand or build new schools.
Cathy Robine, a retired educator who was elected in District 8, said she’s “ready to roll up her sleeves,” find a new superintendent who will “set the tone” for the district and work on “bringing the board together again.”
“If everyone is true to their campaigning and what they said, then I think we should be able to move forward,” Robine said. “... I’m very hopeful, because I think that was one of the top priorities for every single person who ran.”