NORTH AUGUSTA — One could say that Ray Fleming's passion for public education started to emerge more than 20 years ago, when he started reading to his granddaughter Hannah – several weeks before she was born to Fleming's daughter, Holly.
For the past eight years, he has served on the Aiken County Board of Education.
He will not seek a third term and will leave the Board in November.
“I feel such an immersion in the schools, that something else is waiting,” he said. “It won't be far from education, but in a different way. I'm excited about that.”
Three seemingly insignificant circumstances converged more than 15 years ago that would lead to Fleming's education service. For years his wife, Lyn, had served as the computer lab coordinator at North Augusta Elementary School. Fleming had earlier retired as a health physicist at the Savannah River Site and felt he should find a worthwhile use of his time.
Not long afterward, Lyn mentioned a mentoring program at the school – where volunteers visited once a week for an hour to help a child with reading. Fleming joined that effort and soon his hours were increasing and then, “Why not every day?,” he said.
Over the next few years, Fleming started volunteering for more and more projects – working with children at the North Augusta school and then at Jefferson Elementary School, as well.
“I saw just how hard it is for some kids to learn how to read,” Fleming said. “Some take for granted that it's easy, but it's not a silver bullet. Reading is a tough business, and I hope I was able to help along the way.”
He realized he needed more information about the process and took two senior-level reading courses at USC Aiken. He got involved in other education programs, too – leading to his successful bid for the School Board.
During his first full year, Fleming began to absorb the complexity of a system with 24,000 students and 3,000 employees. The issues were myriad – among them a graduation rate in the 60-percent range, and the need to deal with aging facilities. The recession hit in 2008, and the Board took some austerity measures, a few of them drawing criticism.
The decisions were tough, Fleming said, and he credits then-new Superintendent Dr. Beth Everitt for maintaining as many services as possible.
Fleming is pleased the District has increased the graduation rate to 80 percent and introduced new initiatives that have cut expulsions in half. However, he acknowledges that voters in 2010 resoundingly defeated a $236 million referendum – unwilling to raise property taxes for needed school construction. Now, Fleming is hoping this week that the S.C. General Assembly will wrap up new legislation – giving the School Board the authority to ask voters for a one-cent sales tax hike in November to fund new construction.
“They have told us they would be more receptive to the penny sales tax,” Fleming said. “That would be a wonderful place for me to leave.”
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.