Richland Two board dysfunction detailed in scathing SC Inspector General report

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Published: Nov. 4, 2022 at 8:36 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A scathing report from the South Carolina Inspector General’s office details dysfunction among Richland School District Two’s board members, stemming from “petty disagreements and personal attacks.”

The report states that it is negatively impacting district operations and leaving some job candidates to seek employment elsewhere.

In the 54-page report’s conclusions, it states that only 14 percent of the board’s agenda items were on academic matters during the four-year review period.

The report comes at the request of Gov. Henry McMaster, who has the authority to ask the state to review school districts under a new law passed this year. The governor requested the investigation in May after receiving several complaints from parents about district leadership.

“I can’t argue that we have had our issues, but I think that we now have a roadmap going forward for what we need to work on,” Board Chair James Manning, who is not seeking re-election, told WIS on Friday.

The district responded in a statement, saying in part: “Importantly, the report’s findings do not assert intentional wrongdoing by the district. A district the size of Richland Two requires constant process evaluations and improvements, and the district intends to use the IG report as part of our process to make such improvements.

The report found that the district has not consistently had formalized processes in place in all needed areas to ensure best practices.

The district welcomes guidance from the report on methods to continue codifying processes to ensure our district is in full compliance with state and federal laws and regulations. Those improvements have begun and are ongoing and some have already been completed.”

Richland Two’s official response also points to a portion of the report which says that despite the boards’ infighting, the district delivered quality education to its more than 112,000 students during the period in review.

More than 85,000 files were reviewed as part of the Inspector General’s report, including 19.4 gigabytes of information. More than 90 interviews with board members and district staff were conducted.

The report outlines opposing factions on the board but notes that all seven board members deserve blame for its current dysfunction.

Infighting has been well-documented, including most notably an exchange between then Board Chair Teresa Holmes and Board Member Lashonda McFadden during an executive session in April.

McFadden at one point during the interaction tells Holmes, “I will f--- you up.”

The report states that Holmes’ language leading up to McFadden’s comments was demeaning, including when she called McFadden “little girl,” “honey,” and “baby.”

McFadden told WIS in May that much of her anger stemmed from being called “little girl.”

The incident led to a disorderly conduct charge for McFadden.

The report outlines that both McFadden and Holmes violated board policy for their language during that exchange, and Manning violated board policy for recording it.

The report stated that name-calling during the executive session halted board work several times.

It also detailed a September 2021 walkout by three board members as evidence of dysfunction.

Earlier this year, the board had contracted with a leadership consultant.

The report states, “The SIG concurred with the consultant’s observations that Board member conduct fostered a hostile environment, which created reputational and operational risk.”

The report comes days before voters will decide who will lead the district in the years ahead.

Just one of the four board members up for re-election, Holmes, will be on the ballot next week.

Manning said this shakeup in board leadership will help it move forward.

“It’s a reset of the board,” he said. “You have at least 3 new board members coming on, it’s a chance to reset, refocus, get back to academics, to behave differently. But people are watching, and it’s now well-documented.”

Board Member Lindsay Agostini agrees and said new board members could help resolve the Inspector General’s concerns.

In an interview Friday, Agostini, who is not up for re-election until 2024, said she is “optimistic” about the future of the board.

“I’ve met many of the candidates, I’m very impressed,” she said. “They seem very committed to Richland Two. They’ve noticed the lack of civility that we’ve had on the board, and most of them, that’s been a primary focus of theirs is to bring back civility to the Richland Two Board of Trustees and their focused on the students.”

Agostini suggested that the incoming board engage in team-building efforts.

Holmes said she sent a full response to the Inspector General’s office.

In a statement, she said, “It is my sincere desire to move forward for the well-being of our Richland Two students and those who work with them each day.”

McFadden sent WIS a statement on Friday, which reads: “I appreciate all of the intensive labor the OIG’s office put into creating this report. This is a very detailed version of the state of the district. We now have a clear-cut road map to guide us in the next steps to create goals and objectives for moving Richland School District Two forward.

The report also gave board members personal evaluations. I now have a bonafide instrument to measure my productivity on the board with. The OIG’s office highlighted areas of concern in my role that needs to be addressed. It spelled out policy violations and areas of improvement that I need to focus on.

This is important because when I ran for office in 2020, it was to take my community service to the next level. I was a housewife and homeschooling mother looking for ways to play an active role in my children’s public education. It was a huge learning curve for me and I tried my best to learn as much as I could. I asked a lot of questions to make sure I was as informed as possible for making decisions on behalf of the community.

I deeply regret what this district has been through, but the findings and recommendations from the OIG’s staff is impeccable and I am grateful for the amount of dedication he had in completing this report. I look forward to working with future board members in accomplishing these goals, per the discretion of the Governor.”

The investigation also addressed financial reporting.

The Inspector General the district’s purchase limits on procurement cards were not listed in the finance manual, which did not align with its procurement code.

The report detailed four purchases in 2021 where the user “did not have sufficient information to support the approval of the P-Card expenditures.” These expenditures included merchandise, tickets, admissions, and clothing.

“The SIG determined the District did not have a P-Card policy,” The Inspector General wrote. “P-Card usage is an area susceptible to fraud, and strict controls should be in place to mitigate risk.”

For further clarification on procurement cards, the district wrote, “The District has a clearly outlined procurement code and established P-Card procedures.

The Procurement Team conducts daily and monthly reviews of all P-Card purchases and verifies that appropriate documentation accompanies transactions. The District identifies purchases that may be out of compliance, and those items are brought to leadership’s attention and additional information is requested.

This review significantly reduces issues that can arise when using P-cards. Principals and Fund Managers approve purchases digitally using the Works system, in lieu of handwritten approvals. In addition, account numbers and descriptions are provided in the Works system and not handwritten on receipts.

In recent years, the District has strategically automated internal processes. Subsequently, these strategies created efficiencies that were invaluable during the period of remote processes that resulted from the pandemic and have helped create capacity to balance increasing needs with limited staffing.”

The report also stated that the district does not have an internal auditor position, which it called “a vital function” as an internal watchdog. It said that internal changes for auditing needed to be addressed.

The investigation determined that district academic achievements and test scores, while rebounding from pandemic-related disruptions, still have room for improvement.

WIS has embedded the full report below:

The board filed a response to the report. It said in part, “We will work civilly and transparently with each other, with District administration, and with the public. While our visions for improving Richland Two differ, we will work together to find common ground and to ensure that students are always our chief priority.”

WIS has embedded the full response below:

The governor’s communications director said the governor is still reviewing the findings of the report and has no statement at this time.

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