Richland One community packs auditorium for district’s first board meeting since teacher reassignments

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Published: Oct. 25, 2023 at 8:06 AM EDT
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HOPKINS, S.C. – (WIS) Richland School District One parents and teachers packed the Hopkins Middle School auditorium Tuesday night for the district’s first board meeting since it abruptly reassigned 11 teachers to new schools last week.

The move angered parents, teachers and students, and spurred a protest of hundreds on Monday, calling for transparency and accountability among district leadership.

After two hours in executive session, the board began its public session at 7 p.m. and immediately addressed the reassignments.

That portion of the meeting took nearly three hours and began with a lengthy presentation from district human resources.

The meeting did not wrap up until about midnight.

Kalu Kalu, the district’s Director of Certified Employment Services, led that portion, but when pressed by board member Robert Lominack, could not detail the exact number of transfers that have taken place district-wide this school year, and could not answer how many teachers initially learned of their reassignments last Wednesday.

Kalu at one point said that the exclusion of a special education teacher from Southeast Middle School on a chart of transfers was an “oversight.”

The board engaged in a robust discussion about the reassignments, addressing how the situation was handled, the transition for these teachers, and how to set the district up for success so it can avoid a situation like this in the future.

But many parents say the conversation came too late.

“To think there are children in our district who haven’t had a teacher all year is infuriating, especially when this is an issue that could have been prevented,” Morgan Scott, a Richland One parent and teacher, said during public comment. “Again, let me stress, this could have been prevented. Applicants never hear back, phone calls are never returned, qualified experienced teachers never even have the chance to interview.”

Scott said that when this is brought up, the district tries to “explain away” reasons why the district has some of the highest teacher vacancies in South Carolina.

District Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon conceded, following a request from the South Carolina Education Association, that any teacher reassigned will be allowed to get out of their contract without a revocation of their teaching license.

If any of the reassigned teachers want to stay at their initial schools, and another teacher wants to volunteer to take their place, that will be looked at on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Some parents say there were some great ideas and collaboration at the meeting.

Though they acknowledged that the district may have needed to make these moves, they wished that they had done so sooner, and with more planning.

“At a minimum, the Richland One School District should operate in a way that is professional, timely, consistent and in the best interest of all students,” Caroline Kinney, a Richland One parent, said. “The school district’s policies, procedures and HR decisions should not harm or disrupt or stand in the way of student growth.”

Frances Parker, a Richland One taxpayer, said the parents have not handled the situation well.

“Yesterday’s protest was based on personal desires, not what is fair for all children and equity is what is fair and impartial,” she said.

Parker believes the district should look into the fact that some schools are “brimming” with students, and others are not.

She suggested possible rezoning of district schools.

It was an engaged crowd, at times audibly frustrated with responses from district HR and Witherspoon.

Lominack pressed Kalu on allegations that teachers were spoken to in an inhumane way during the announcement of the reassignments.

“Given the utter lack of notice that teachers were provided and the lack of notice that principals were provided on either end of this reassignment spectrum, and the way teachers that were spoken to, I understand that’s a personnel matter, but if we ignore that now, we will lose more teachers than we ever have before,” Lominack said to raucous applause.

Board member Barbara Weston urged her colleagues to do better for all of Richland One.

“The buck stops with us because we have to look at our constituents,” she said. “We need to come together and not allow our teachers to be put on a shelf, herded to one place or the other or have their licenses revoked.”

Weston, who has said that the treatment of former Lower Richland High School Principal Ericka Hursey drove her to seek a seat on the school board, compared Hursey’s situation to those of the reassigned teachers.

Hursey was reassigned following a graduation speech that she delivered at her alma mater and has filed a lawsuit alleging retaliation.

Some parents say the reassignment saga is the latest example of poor decisions by the district, and are calling for the South Carolina Inspector General to investigate.

The Inspector General can investigate school districts for fraud, waste, abuse, or mismanagement.

This can be done at the request of the governor, the State Superintendent of Education, or a majority of the county’s legislative delegation.

To this point, Governor Henry McMaster’s office says they are “closely monitoring” the situation, and have received more than a dozen calls about it, but that it does not rise to the level of a state investigation at this point.

The superintendent’s evaluation was also on the agenda during the board meeting.

This is typically when matters of the superintendent’s contract could be addressed, like a contract extension or a raise.

The board took no action on Witherspoon’s contract Tuesday night, after discussing the matter in executive sessions.

Board Chairwoman Cheryl Harris called it an “information item,” and said it would be brought up in public session at a later date.

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