Ann Levett, retiring superintendent of Savannah-Chatham County Public School System

Once upon a time, the posts of school board member or school superintendent were relatively obscure compared to those of governor, mayor, or state lawmaker. No more.

Since Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin won a race for governor in 2021 after focusing on parents’ rights and calling critical race theory a problem in schools, schooling and education are increasingly viewed, especially by conservative organizations and the GOP, as fertile ground for mobilizing their core supporters.

That partisan ferment will come to bear on the Savannah-Chatham County School Board starting tomorrow, when it holds its formal discussion on the search for a new school superintendent following the unexpected resignation of Ann Levett last month.

The search will be the first test of how the nine-member board navigates the new political battlefield under its new president, Roger Moss, co-founder of the Savannah Children’s Choir, who was elected in a landslide in May.

If Moss and other board members have their ways, a private firm will be hired to conduct a national search for Levett’s successor, whose job is to oversee some 36,000 students, 5,600 full- and part-time employees, 63 schools and learning facilities, and a budget of more than $650 million.

Moss told The Current he expects a new superintendent to be in place by the start of the 2023-2024 school year.

Crucially, he and other school board members said the board would solicit public input into the selection process. How it will do so isn’t clear.

The board will decide that when it meets, Moss said Monday.

Michael Johnson

The reaction to Levett’s resignation at a meeting of the Chatham County GOP — two days after the superintendent announced her plans to step down at the end of June — indicates how politically charged the selection of a new superintendent could become.

At the start of the meeting, Michael Johnson, District 7 school board representative, stood in front of some 40 people and declared, “Five more months!”

The audience erupted in cheers.

School board wars

Compared to the school board wars that have broken out elsewhere in the country, Chatham County has been a relatively subdued front. There are signs, however, that’s changing.

Mirroring a national trend, money poured into Chatham’s most recent school board elections as never before. Parents for Choice, a political action committee, raised $87,000 for a slate of four school board candidates: Moss, Treye Burrison, Keith Padgett, and Jasmine Polley. Moss’ campaign cost more than $200,000, he said.

Former President Donald Trump upped the political ante last week, unveiling an education plan as a cornerstone for his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. The plan calls for eliminating teacher tenure, axing administrative staffers, and stopping “pink-haired communists” from teaching children and transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports.

At the kickoff of his campaign in New Hampshire on Saturday, Trump said that, if elected, he would “eliminate federal funding for any school that pushes critical race theory or left-wing gender ideology,” and support “direct election of school principals by the parents.”

Hoping to build on the political groundswell, a national organization called No Left Turn has established a local chapter in Savannah.

Its aim, its website says, is to revive in American education the “fundamental discipline of objective thinking by educating, empowering, and engaging students, parents, and community, emphasizing the role of the parent as the primary custodian and authority of their child.”

No Left Turn plans to urge a national search for Levett’s successor instead of hiring any of her local allies for the job, said Beth Majeroni, one of the group’s members.

The school system needs a clear break from the Levett administration, she said.

Spotlight on Moss

Adding to the political intrigue surrounding the school board’s selection of a new school superintendent will be the role of Moss, the board’s new president.

Moss won last May’s elections on a wave of support from across the political spectrum — an extraordinary accomplishment in an era of such deep political polarization.

But now, Moss will have to address and balance the inevitably conflicting demands of board members, constituents, and donors. He’ll have to take sides, starting with his preference of a new superintendent.

He’ll be watched especially closely for the extent to which his pick of a new superintendent mirrors his widely known promotion of charter schools — publicly funded, independently run alternatives to traditional public schools. His championing of such schools put him sharply at odds with Levett.

Moss pushed for the creation of two charter schools, Savannah Classical Academy and the Savannah Exploratory Charter Academy, which hasn’t yet opened. Among his more than 400 campaign donors were local businessmen Reed Dulany and Don Waters, who helped establish the Savannah Classical Academy.

When the Levett-headed school district turned down his application for Savannah Exploratory, Moss turned to the state board of education to get it.

Moss notes that he, like the other eight school board members, has only one vote in the choice of new school superintendent.

Unlike those other eight members, however, he’s not elected by a district; he’s elected by all Chatham County voters. The outcome of the selection process falls more heavily on him.

Levett’s legacy

Looming over the school board’s search for a new superintendent will be the complicated — and disputed — legacy of Levett.

To many residents of Chatham County, especially those who are Black, she is a model of heroism and success having started her career in the Savannah-Chatham Public School System, left the city to take prominent educational posts, including at Yale University, before returning to the SCCPSS as chief academic officer then taking over as superintendent in 2017.

To skeptics about charter schools and school choice, as well as those worried about the steady flow of students into Chatham’s thriving private school community, Levett has been a bulwark against efforts to divert resources away from public schools in a system where 77% of the students are non-white and 57% are Black.

To her critics in Chatham, she has become a lightning rod for their frustration with crime, poverty, and big government. She symbolizes school administrators who are overpaid at the expense of students and educators who have sacrificed basic standards for pedagogical fads, allowing unpatriotic and subversive ideas to infiltrate the classroom.

In fact, Levett’s salary is on par with that school superintendents in comparably sized school districts in Georgia.

SCCPSS is the 10th largest school district in the state by number of students. The ninth largest — Cherokee County’s — hired its superintendent at $306,000 base pay in 2020.  The eighth largest — Henry County’s — hired the position at $334,750 in December 2021. 

SCCPSS signed its last contract with Levett in July 2021 at a base pay of $274,434. That figure does not include benefits, travel payments or other allowances.

‘Smaller ship, bigger rudder’

David Bringman

How transparently the Chatham County school board assesses Levett’s legacy will shape its choice of her successor and the school district for years to come. That, in part, will be a political challenge.  

While school board seats in Chatham County are non-partisan, the activities of the board “have always been political and always will be,” Moss said. To District 6’s representative on the school board, David Bringman, politics are also unavoidable.

“I think that a lot of people have finally figured out that if you want to make change rapidly, local politics are definitely a better place to put your effort because it’s a smaller ship and a bigger rudder,” he said.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...