SC lawmakers call for investigation into Richland One for allegations of mismanagement

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Published: Nov. 1, 2023 at 8:23 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Four Richland County lawmakers are asking the governor to initiate a state investigation of Richland School District One, for allegations of “mismanagement, misconduct and organizational dysfunction.”

The legislators, who are members of the panel known as the Richland County Legislative Delegation, said the recent and abrupt teacher reassignments in the district were the “last straw” for frustrated students, parents and educators, who are concerned about what has been happening in Richland One for years.

“It’s time to lift up the hood so parents, teachers and students can see what’s going on under it, and let the results then speak for itself,” Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, said on Tuesday.

However, after hand-delivering a letter to Governor Henry McMaster with their request, the governor’s office said an investigation does not appear likely at this point.

In a statement, Brandon Charochak, a spokesman for the governor, said, “The governor shares the same concerns over teacher reassignments at Richland One and their almost certain negative impact on teacher recruitment and retention in the district. However, at this time, the governor does not believe that the statutory threshold required for him to direct an investigation by the State Inspector General has been met.”

The governor now has new authority to call on the South Carolina Office of the State Inspector General to investigate if there is credible evidence of malfeasance.

This group of lawmakers can also compel such an investigation by the Inspector General’s office if a majority of its members seek one.

However, only four of the 15 legislators on the panel, all Democrats, signed the letter to the governor.

Bernstein said all delegation members were asked to sign onto the letter on Friday and were given the opportunity to respond.

Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said an investigation would be a “true waste of taxpayer money.”

“Gripes about the school district and its operations should be taken up with the school board, not with a delegation simply with the power to investigate, which causes taxpayers to spend a whole bunch of money,” he said.

On Friday, Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said he is “very supportive” of Richland One and its administration.

He shares the concerns of frustrated parents but said if allegations are being levied due to frustration about the reassignments, he does not believe that is fair.

Rutherford added that the delegation is “not here as a super board over the school board, we are not super superintendents.”

He is not standing by the district but does not believe that there is a role for the delegation in this instance.

“The district has done it before and when it was a move of teachers from a majority-Black school to a majority-white school, there was no uproar,” Rutherford said. “That does not take away the fact that parents are mad, but their grievance should be with the school district, not with the delegation.”

According to state enrollment data, the schools receiving teachers in the transfers have majority-Black student bodies, while two of the schools losing teachers, Satchel Ford Elementary and Brennen Elementary, have majority-white student bodies.

“We’re concerned about the entire district,” Bernstein said. “I am listening to constituents’ concerns.”

District Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon said in an October 19 interview about the reassignments said teachers have been transferred in this way throughout Richland One for decades, usually around this time in the school year when things have settled and there is a clearer picture of student-teacher ratios.

Richland One board member Barbara Weston, who ran for office after the transfer and of former Lower Richland High School Principal Dr. Ericka Hursey, said in a statement that the situation “has nothing to do with race.”

“The culture in our district has been destroyed,” she said. “I won because all people, Black, white, Hispanic, etc., recognized that we have to change the toxic culture in our schools in order to save the children. I have been fighting that fight for more than a year now. It starts at the top. Change has to come from the top. We in Richland One must fight to change the toxic culture in all of our schools. In order to do that we have to work together.”

The letter to McMaster states that the legislators have received hundreds of complaints from the community, some of which include, but are not limited to, “high teacher turnover rate, continuous failed state report cards, lack of transparency and communication and potential misappropriation of funds.”

“This is based upon what I’m hearing from my constituents, the complaints that we are all hearing that would warrant an investigation,” Bernstein said. “And let’s see. Being open and transparent is what we want to ensure. And District One should embrace this because if there’s nothing to hide, then they should embrace it.”

Richland One is currently under fiscal watch, which is the lowest level of budgetary concern for school districts under state law.

A recent audit of district spending found “significant deficiencies” in district spending practices and a lack of oversight with its purchase-card program.

The district appealed the fiscal watch designation, but that appeal was denied.

Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, signed the letter and called the situation in Richland One a “dumpster fire.”

He said he has been watching what he describes as the district’s mismanagement for the better part of a decade.

“I mean this is just a horrible situation,” Harpootlian said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars being flushed down the toilet, and our kids aren’t getting educated. They’re not getting the quality of education that we’re paying for.”

Harpootlian said an investigation by the Inspector General would be a “first step,” and suggested consolidating Richland County’s three school districts into one.

“District One is one of the most well-funded school districts in the entire state, yet we have some of the lowest outcomes in every meaningful statistic compared to Richland Two and other districts that are around us,” Rep. Heather Bauer, D-Richland, said.

Bauer, whose district includes some of the schools affected by the recent reassignments, also pointed to data from the most recent state report cards that show Richland One spends 52.7 percent of its budget on student instruction, which is down from 54.6 percent last year.

Richland Two currently spends about 68 percent on student instruction.

She believes that money could be better allocated to serve the students of the district.

This group of lawmakers believes an investigation is the only way forward for accountability and transparency.

“It’s clear that there needs to be something looked into to instill the trust and faith that everyone should have in their government, especially the public school system,” Rep. Seth Rose, D-Richland, said.

The district has faced two lawsuits this month, alleging “negligence” in cases where students were harmed.

Bernstein said this bolsters the need for an investigation.

Richland One said it cannot comment on pending litigation.

The district responded to the calls for an investigation on Tuesday evening with a statement, which reads, “The recent teacher reassignments were part of our ongoing efforts to keep student-teacher ratios low in our classrooms. Some schools were overstaffed while others were understaffed, which led to those adjustments being made after we had clearer student enrollment numbers for our schools after the 45th day of the school year.

Teacher reassignments happen every year as we make staffing adjustments, but we are always working to improve our processes and procedures overall, and we welcome the feedback that we have received about this matter.

However, statements and allegations that have been made that the teacher reassignments point to a larger issue of mismanagement and misappropriation of funds by the district are simply unfounded. We strive to be fiscally responsible and operate in the most effective and efficient manner possible and be good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars. Richland One has received the highest form of recognition in the areas of governmental accounting and financial reporting from the Government Financial Officers Association (GFOA) and the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO) for 35 consecutive years.

With regard to instructional expenditures, some expenditures – such as laptops for students and other large purchases – are made at the district level and are not coded to schools, which may give the impression that our instructional expenditures are not as high as they are. That said, our most recent external audit report (for fiscal year 2022) showed that 60.3% of our expenditures went to instruction and instructional support.

The South Carolina Department of Education’s (SCDE) decision to place the district on fiscal watch was based on their findings from a P-card audit of the district. We maintain a strong system of internal checks and balances, which includes a review of all P-card transactions on a monthly basis. Those internal checks and balances discovered issues concerning a former employee that were turned over to law enforcement.

SCDE’s audit consisted of 426 statements with a total of 3,858 transactions. The audit found some exceptions. Of the 426 statements that were audited by SCDE, exceptions were found with 18 (or 4.2 percent); of the 3,858 transactions, exceptions were found with 71 (or 1.8 percent). The audit cited some procedural concerns, but there were no findings of misuse of funds. As previously stated, we appreciate the opportunities to improve that were identified in the audit; however, in our opinion, none of the findings were significant or rose to material impact.”

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