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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

'08 schol board chief practices what's practical

Posted on Wed, Dec. 26, 2007
Simpson to bring a businessman’s perspective
’08 chief preaches what’s practical
Lost in the hubbub over a home-school educator’s election to chair of the S.C. Board of Education in 2009 is the man who will precede her in the post Al Simpson of Lancaster.

Simpson takes over the gavel as state school board chairman from John Tindal of Manning when the panel convenes for its next meeting in mid-January. State board members follow a policy of picking their future leader a year in advance.

Simpson cast a critical preliminary vote Dec. 12 that enabled Kristin Maguire of Clemson to defeat Fred “Trip” DuBard, a Florence businessman.

“We had two good candidates,” he said. “I don’t think this vote is going to cause any problems with the board.”
Maguire, he said, “has a whole year to prepare to move up. She’ll do a fine job. She’s shown me she’s dedicated to public schools.”

So is Simpson.
A product of South Carolina public schools, Simpson’s three children attend Lancaster County public schools, where he said he has seen choice work for families.

Consequently, the 47-year-old businessman supports state Education Superintendent Jim Rex’s campaign to expand public school choice options in all 85 school systems.

“He’s done a fantastic job in outlining things that are going to make a difference,” Simpson said. “Choice and innovation are really exciting to me.”

“These things work,” he said. “It’s important to give parents and students options. We’ve been doing things the same way for a long time, and look where we are.”

As for creating state-sanctioned incentives to offset private-school tuition, Simpson said “that’s something the Legislature needs to deal with. I’m for public schools. I’ve never really endorsed that.”

Simpson would like to see the board emphasize improving literacy, scaling back the amount of standardized testing and reducing the dropout rate.

South Carolina’s four-year graduation rate is among the nation’s lowest. Educators blame the problem on a failure to ensure that children learn to read and keep improving as they move through school.

“I want to focus on a plan to drive the board to concentrate on the dropout rate,” he said. “That’s coming from my business background more than anything else.”

Simpson said the expectation every child will complete school in 12 years might be unrealistic today. “Finishing is what counts.”

An executive for a Rock Hill company that manufactures testing equipment for textiles, plastics and non-woven textile industries, Simpson knows the challenge of filling jobs that require the ability to read, measure and do basic math.

“I’ve lived the interview process,” Simpson said, “and it’s difficult sometimes to find the kind of people you need.”
Rex said that perspective is important.
“Mr. Simpson brings a business person’s practical perspective to issues that come before the state board,” Rex said. “He’s familiar with the school improvement process in his home community’s schools and has been supportive of our state education reforms that are now underway.”

After graduating from Lancaster High in 1979, Simpson studied criminal justice at the University of South Carolina’s Lancaster campus. After four years as a South Carolina Highway Patrol officer in Chester County, he switched to business when he got married.

Working first in sales, he moved into management a job that occasionally takes him overseas.
“You hear people say all the time we are competing in a global economy,” Simpson said. “I’ve seen it first-hand myself.”

Simpson’s rise to a leadership position on the state school board is the quintessential S.C. story. He was active in parent organizations at his children’s schools and knew others in his hometown who had served on the state school board.

“When I was asked (by local lawmakers) if I would be interested in serving, I thought it was a good opportunity to make a difference,” he said.

Since joining the panel two years ago, Simpson has been amazed by the misconceptions “of how much power we have over individual school districts. It’s been an education in itself.”

He acknowledges the state school board “is not clearly as powerful as it once was.”
Tindal, who was state board chairman for 2007, said Simpson is well-suited for the job. “Al is very stable and dependable. In order to be a chairperson, those are two traits one needs to have,” Tindal said.

“I'm concerned about (the) image of public boards and bodies and I tried to exemplify the proper characteristics as a board member. I feel confident Al will carry forth in a positive way,” Tindal said. “I’m looking forward to Al's leadership, and hopefully it will make a difference for the person who follows him.”

Since the late 1990s, the state has embraced an aggressive position on standardized testing, which Simpson said he thinks can be scaled back without sacrificing quality.

“We test too much,” Simpson said. Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests are “not diagnostic tests. We need to put lots of minds together to do that. But I believe it can be done.”

He calls his election a year ago to be chairman “one of the biggest honors of my life.”
“Education is so important. I’m excited about the direction we’re headed. I just want to be a part of it,” Simpson said.

Reach Robinson at (803) 771-8482.

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