Fort Mill resident enters “critical” race for S.C. education chief

Special for the Fort Mill TimesMarch 24, 2014 

Montrio Belton

BELTON

— Fort Mill’s Montrio Belton wants to put learning technology in the hands of every student in the state of South Carolina, bring broadband Internet access to their classrooms and “start the conversation” for beginning year-round schooling.

To do that, Belton is hoping to become the next state Superintendent of Education.

Running as the lone Democratic candidate, Belton will likely have a tough time defeating the Republican pick, which could be one of eight possible contenders, in this GOP-leaning state.

Belton is one of seven African-American candidates for statewide office running this year, but says race is a non-issue.

“I’ve said to people not to vote for me because I’m a Democrat or an African-American,” he told the Olde English Consortium, a nonprofit educational collaborative, earlier this month. “I’m well aware of that, but that’s not why I want people to vote for me. I want them to vote for me because I’m qualified.”

Born and raised in Abbeville, Belton earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Winthrop University before receiving a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He was a principal and assistant principal at Darlington High School and Monroe Middle School, respectively, before moving on to his most recent position as the state’s director of school transformation.

After spending more than 20 years around educators around the state, he says he “unequivocally disagrees” with the “A-F” rating of teachers and schools, saying it is unfair that teachers are judged by end-of-year testing scores.

Instead, he proposes a growth model in which pay is determined by individual student progress from one year to the next.

“If my son is already performing at a third grade level, he should leave the third grade being able to perform at the next level,” Belton said. “If he’s still at the same level, that teacher shouldn’t be considered an ‘A’ teacher.”

Current superintendent Mick Zais (R) announced in December he would not seek a second term before State Rep. Mike Anthony (D) dropped out of the race earlier this month. Belton worked as the director of school transformation of the S.C. Education Department for the 2011-12 school year, overseeing the office’s $110 million budget. The Democrat anticipates receiving a law degree from the University of South Carolina in May 2015.

The last Democrat elected in a state-wide election was Education Superintendent Jim Rex, in 2006. He succeeded another Democrat, Inez Tenenbaum, who went on to serve in the Obama administration.

Michael Fanning, director of the Olde English Consortium, said there is no one in either primary who he would deem as a “front runner” since Zais dropped his bid for re-election.

“The Democrats know this is probably the last seat they have a shot to win and the Republicans are thinking… if we can take the superintendent seat, we can erase the Democrats off the map,” Fanning said.

Marty McGinn, assistant superintendent for the Fort Mill School District, isn’t endorsing any candidate, but hopes the winner will be “an advocate for all the children of this state.”

“I think it’ll be a critical election,” McGinn said. “We need someone with strong leadership skills who’ll take everybody toward our common goals.”

Zais endorsed former deputy superintendent Meka Childs for his former spot, calling Childs “a woman of impressive intellect and absolute integrity.”

As of March 21, the other Republican candidates running are Sally Atwater, a former Colleton County teacher; Gary Burgess, Anderson County Board of Education member; Amy Cofield, a Lexington attorney; Sheri Few, a Lugoff Republican activist; Don Jordan of Columbia, a University of South Carolina professor; Elizabeth Moffly, a Charleston County School Board member; and Molly Spearman, executive director of the S.C. Association of School Administrators.

“The people of South Carolina own this nomination,” Belton said. “We intend on running our race and letting the people decide.”

Belton, his wife Tonya and his children live in Fort Mill.

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