ORANGEBURG, S.C. (AP) - A judge has barred the trustees of financially troubled South Carolina State University from firing suspended President Thomas Elzey, noting legislators will likely fire the entire board soon.
Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson on Wednesday agreed with Elzey's lawyer that he was placed on administrative leave last week without the opportunity to be heard. The judge ordered the apparently lame-duck board to maintain Elzey's paid-leave status until he appears before its replacement.
"As it appears likely there will be a differently constituted board of trustees in the near future, it is in the public's best interest" to side with Elzey in blocking his firing, Dickson wrote.
The ruling came hours before the trustees were scheduled to meet amid ongoing turmoil involving South Carolina's only public historically black university, which is wrestling with escalating debt.
Trustees promised last week to have more information Wednesday on Elzey's fate. They still met Wednesday by telephone, speaking privately for about two hours before voting 8-1 to ask their lawyers to keep negotiating with Elzey and appeal the ruling if both sides can't agree.
Elzey's attorney, Nancy Bloodgood, filed a lawsuit in Orangeburg County court Tuesday, accusing the trustees of breaking his four-year contract, which extends to mid-2017.
Meanwhile, state senators voted 41-1 to approve that chamber's plan to fire all trustees.
That plan, introduced two weeks ago by Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, would create a new, five-member board to oversee SC State until 2018 as it works to bring the 119-year-old school to fiscal solvency. Its members would be appointed by five GOP lawmakers, including Leatherman. The new board would decide whether to fire or replace Elzey.
Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, opposed the bill as ceding the Legislature's appointment authority to five individuals.
"This is not a solution. This is just a new board," he said.
Sen. Shane Massey said Elzey, hired in 2013, deserves credit for disclosing SC State's fiscal "shenanigans."
"He hasn't had a lot of cooperation from the board. He's had no support from the very beginning," said Massey, R-Edgefield. Massey said that while he also recognizes the school's fiscal problems couldn't be solved "overnight," he's frustrated that "in a two-year period, I've not seen a realistic plan to right the ship."
A separate proposal advancing through the House committee process would put the state's financial oversight board temporarily in charge. It requires the board, chaired by Gov. Nikki Haley, to fire Elzey.
Under Elzey's contract, he can be fired only for cause. The lawsuit notes the suspension occurred less than two weeks after the board publicly backed him, despite legislators' calls for his removal, and that trustees gave him a satisfactory review last summer.
Breaking his contract without cause would cost $428,000, according to an estimate from state economic advisers, dated Tuesday.
Elzey's lawsuit seeks more than that. While giving no specific amount, it asks for lost wages and benefits, as well as compensation for the ordeal's emotional distress and embarrassment.
Elzey is supposed to be paid $305,400 this year, with $173,400 funded by taxpayers and $132,000 by the school's foundation. He also receives a $25,000 annual housing allowance and is entitled to six weeks of paid vacation, according to the Budget and Control Board.
SC State owes more than $11 million in unpaid bills, despite receiving $7.5 million from separate state bailouts in the past year.
It has been on accreditation probation since last summer. Elzey has blamed the financial woes on the yearslong decline in enrollment, coupled with a drop in state and federal funding, while the school spent as if nothing had changed.