Richland One board member calls for leadership change, says she will vote against renewing superintendent’s contract

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Published: Nov. 10, 2023 at 8:52 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. – (WIS) A member of the Richland School District One board is calling for a change in leadership amid recent controversy within the district, and saying she will vote against renewing the superintendent’s contract.

Richland One has come under fire after officials abruptly re-assigned 11 teachers last month.

RELATED CONTENT / Richland One reassigns teachers to new schools prior to fall break, infuriating families

RELATED CONTENT / Chart from Richland County School District One details teacher reassignment plans

It prompted calls for a state investigation into the district by some parents and lawmakers.

RELATED CONTENT / SC lawmakers call for investigation into Richland One for allegations of mismanagement

Richland One board member Barbara Weston said there is a culture in Richland One that is standing in the way of results.

“Everything starts from the top, I’ve said that before, this is nothing new,” she said in a Friday interview. “Some of my colleagues say that I have an agenda. I hope we all have an agenda, and that that agenda is to do what’s best for children.”

Weston said she needed to speak out for the sake of the district’s more than 22,000 students, and for the dozens of educators who speak to privately.

Those teachers, she said, want change but are afraid to go public for fear of retaliation by the district.

“I invite my colleagues to look at the record, to look at what’s happening in our district, and if you want more, then we have to start at the top to get more,” Weston said.

For Weston, it comes down to results and a culture that, according to her, has made it difficult to recruit and retain teachers.

Richland One Board Chairwoman Cheryl Harris said in a statement, “As to the recruitment of teachers, individuals continue to apply, and the District continues to employ teachers willing to educate all of our students. The willingness of teachers to educate all students is important as we review personnel concerns. The District is continuously looking for ways to improve its recruitment and retention of teachers.”

She points to state report card data, which shows in some cases students are performing worse than those in neighboring districts.

Only 51.7 percent of students in the district are ready for third-grade English, and 57.1 percent for math, according to 2022-2023 state report cards.

In Richland Two, those figures are 76.5 percent and 82.5 percent, respectively.

55.8 percent of students in Richland One are college or career ready, report cards show, compared to 67.6 percent of students in Richland Two.

Only 21.5 percent of Richland One children in their graduation cohort are college and career ready.

In response, Harris said in a statement, “In looking at academic achievement, student academic success must be evaluated in the context of student growth.  The District’s students have experienced academic growth from last year to this year.  Based on the current programs implemented to support our students, we expect to continue to see gains in student achievement and student academic growth.”

Weston, an educator for more than 30 years, also said the district has a pattern of incompetent leadership decisions, harming students and disrespecting teachers.

She cited the recent reassignments, and the reason she ran for the board in the first place, the reassignment of former Lower Richland High School Principal Dr. Ericka Hursey.

Hursey has filed a lawsuit against the district and Harris, alleging retaliation and defamation.

RELATED CONTENT / Former Richland One principal suing district and board chair, alleging retaliation and defamation

The lawsuit argues that Hursey was transferred for a June 2022 graduation speech, during which she referenced letting go of negative thinking and removing negative people from her life.

Those remarks got under Harris’ skin, and Witherspoon transferred Hursey at the behest of Harris, according to the complaint.

Harris said she cannot comment on pending litigation.

Hursey’s reassignment to what the lawsuit called a “dead-end” position as coordinator of student hearings sparked uproar in the Lower Richland community.

“We have gone on record, and we have said we don’t like transfers,” Weston said.

Some lawmakers have criticized the public display of frustration with the reassignments this year, and asked why there was not similar dismay when this has been done in the past.

Witherspoon stated in an October 19 interview that reassignments have taken place for decades, typically around the 45-day mark in the school calendar when things have “settled.”

RELATED CONTNET / SC’s largest education association on Richland One teacher reassignments: ‘It’s ignoring the human element of education’

The similarities between Hursey’s situation and the transfers last month are impossible to ignore, Weston said.

“We’ve asked politicians to step up and support us, they failed to do that,” she said. “So now when our counterparts, the elementary school people speak up, and they get our politicians to join them, there is an uproar.”

Four members of the Richland County Legislative Delegation sent a letter to Governor Henry McMaster on October 31, asking that the governor initiate an investigation by the state inspector general into Richland One for allegations of “mismanagement, misconduct and organizational dysfunction.”

The reassignments were “the last straw” for them, the letter reads.

The governor’s office said at the time that he does not believe the statutory threshold needed to direct such an investigation has been met.

Richland One has called those allegations “simply unfounded.”

Democratic Congressman James Clyburn, whose daughter Angela is on the Richland one board, has weighed in on criticism of the district, and asked why districts in question statewide are led by Black superintendents.

“What is taking place today here in Columbia and Richland School District One is unfair, and it is not about furthering the education of our children,” Clyburn said in a November 1 press conference. “It’s all about a political agenda.”

Weston, who said she has great respect for Clyburn and taught his older daughters, sees it differently.

“I just want him to know, and other politicians to know, that it is not a political thing, it is not a race thing, it is all about our children, and most of our children in this district are Black, brown and Hispanic,” she said. “All other children, they’re still our children, and we have to fight for them, we have to fight for our teachers every day to make sure that they get the service and the attention that they need.”

Even if Weston does not have the votes on the seven-member board to not extend Witherspoon’s contract, she said she will not change her position.

“I’m still going to vote my conscience, I’m still going to stand up for teachers, I’m still going to stand up for children and our schools because that’s all I know to do,” she said. “And if it’s right, I’ll fight for it to the death.”

The board is slated to take up the superintendent’s evaluation at its next meeting on November 14.

This is typically when matters of the contract are addressed, whether a contract extension or raise.

Witherspoon’s contract currently runs through June of next year.

District documents show that he received a four percent raise in 2021, and his current salary is $250,000.

Responding to Weston’s comments about the superintendent, Harris said in a statement, “It is not unusual for Board members to express an opinion regarding the Superintendent based on their relationship with the Superintendent. Often, new and existing Board members express different opinions regarding the Superintendent based on the relationship.  The relationship between the Superintendent and Board members is built over the years and strengthened over time.”

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