on August 1, 2008 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Mays part of major changes in Oconee school district

WALHALLA — The School District of Oconee County has experienced a variety of changes during the past 26 years, especially when it comes to new and renovated facilities, the number of school board members and the selection of school superintendents.

Board of Trustees Chairman Harry Mays Jr., a 1965 graduate of Seneca High School, who was first elected to the school board in 1982, has witnessed those changes up close and personal. Mays’ time on the board will soon end as he recently announced plans not to seek re-election.

“I think the time has approached when I need to look at things in life besides going to school board meetings every other Tuesday night,” Mays said, citing family health concerns, a grandchild on the way and being the primary caregiver for his 88-year-old father, longtime physician Harry Mays Sr., as primary reasons behind his decision.

But when Mays attends his final board meeting in October (the winner of the Nov. 4 election will replace him Nov. 11), he can do so knowing that he played an active role in some of the biggest milestones in Oconee’s education history.

Infrastructural changes has been one of the primary areas that Mays has seen evolve. The past quarter century has brought a new Seneca High School and new West-Oak High School and more recently, West-Oak Middle School; renovation projects at Seneca Middle, Ravenel Elementary and, presently, Northside Elementary; new football stadiums for Seneca High and Walhalla High, a new school district office on Pine Street and the opening of the Walhalla Civic Auditorium.

In addition, the school district has enjoyed a positive relationship with Seneca, Walhalla, Westminster and Salem councils — leasing old school facilities, athletic fields and gymnasiums. Even the Oconee County Council’s new headquarters on Pine Street once served as the site for Pine Street Elementary School.

“We feel the benefits they’ve received far outweigh the $1 lease they’ve had to pay,” Mays said, adding, “We have worked with the county and cities because those buildings belong to the taxpayers.”

But that doesn’t mean some decisions, even when it comes to new school construction, have been easy.

In late 2004, Mays voted in favor of locating the new West-Oak Middle School at the Westminster Middle School site — a decision that enraged many Oakway-area residents who preferred the West-Oak High site. Although Mays urged the school board to reconsider his request in early 2005, it was not granted, and the school was built on the existing middle school site.

“It was extremely tough,” Mays admitted, adding, “You can’t please all the people all the time and if some of them happen to be your constituents, that’s even tougher.

“We had just lost $500,000 with the West-Point Stevens plant closing and that was a determining factor. The infrastructure was already there (at Westminster Middle) and dollars were saved for taxpayers by locating the new middle school at that location. As a school board member, that’s something you have to look at.”

Though Mays is certain there are “one or two people” who continue to harbor ill feelings toward him, he feels the majority of individuals are now satisfied with the new middle school that opened last fall.

“They’ve got a top-rated school and a fine facility,” Mays said, adding, “One of the things I think school board members have to be able to do is sort of see over the horizon. It may not happen in my lifetime, but if the county grows in the lower portion, there will need to be another middle school and another elementary school (in the Fair Play/Oakway area). I could even see West-Oak High eventually becoming a 4-A or 5-A school in the future.”

Another change Mays witnessed involved the reduction from nine school board members to five.

“When you’ve got that many people (nine members), you’ve got too many opinions,” Mays said, adding that some sessions under that arrangement lasted into the wee hours of the morning. “We didn’t have any work sessions, one of the reasons why the school board went to a work session under (former superintendent) Jimmy DuPre.”

Another major change that occurred during Mays’ tenure was the decision to change the superintendent from an elected to an appointed position. The board eventually selected Valerie Truesdale to serve as the first appointed superintendent in Oconee history, and following her departure last year, Assistant Superintendent Mike Lucas was selected as the successor.

Mays said the appointed superintendent ensures more accountability from the superintendent to the board, as the board is already accountable to voters.

“You get into a comfort zone and if you get in a comfort zone with an elected superintendent, things tend to go the status quo,” he said.

“If school boards are wanting to stay at the status quo, that’s one thing, but in Oconee County, we want to be the number one school district in South Carolina, and feel we are on our way,” he added.

Mays pointed out that Oconee was the last in the state to change from an elected to an appointed superintendent.

Of all the positive changes that Mays has witnessed in his more than two decades of service, the inability of the school district to receive limited fiscal autonomy when it comes to setting millage is the one goal that failed to materialize. While many school districts throughout the state, including Pickens County, operate under that financing mechanism, the school district must seek County Council approval when finalizing its annual budget.

“Finances are what feeds the bulldog and not having limited fiscal autonomy for the school board is like having to go ask Daddy for money, and he just can’t come up with it,” Mays said.

“I’ve accomplished pretty much all of my goals, but the one thing remaining is limited fiscal autonomy,” he said.

Next: Mays reflects on the five superintendents he served with and how each made their mark while guiding the School District of Oconee County.