An outgoing member of the Berkeley County School Board is questioning whether the district is committing ethics violations by using its resources to produce a Yes 4 Schools video about the upcoming $198 million school bond referendum, but the district denies any wrongdoing.
Board member Donna Marino, who is not seeking re-election, said she believes the campaign has subjected the district to violations by producing the almost four-minute video, which she first saw when it was emailed to her.
“I think it’s against the law to use school resources for this video,” she said. “It has been sent to school emails, which I think is wrong.”
As a result, Daniel Island lawyer Joshua Whitley, who is organizing an effort called Berkeley Committee for Sustainable Education against the referendum, has launched a serious probe.
He has filed a request under the state Freedom of Information Act for emails from Superintendent Rodney Thompson, Assistant Superintendent Archie Franchini and Communications Director Amy Kovach regarding the bond referendum; all emails sent from any district account regarding the bond referendum; calendar and scheduling information for Thompson, Franchini and Kovach; the location of materials promoting the referendum, and more.
“In light of Ms. Kovach’s comments at the last (community) meeting I attended that she has blocked out (Thompson’s) calendar for the month of October to work on this campaign, I believe these calendars should be publicly known,” he wrote in his request.
Not speaking specifically about the Berkeley situation, Cathy Hazelwood, general counsel and deputy director of the State Ethics Commission, said districts cannot make videos instructing employees how to vote or email a video to employees if it instructs them how to vote.
The video was made for the campaign and features campaign co-chairwoman Jane Pulling in front of a Yes 4 Schools sign talking about the schools’ needs, with cut-ins of still photos of buildings, classrooms and students in crowded hallways, Pulling said.
In the video, she says, “I urge you to support (the referendum) by voting ‘yes.’” She said the video was emailed from the Yes 4 Schools campaign committee.
Thompson said in a statement that “no district resources have been used to create, produce or distribute this information” on the campaign committee website.
“First, all campaign materials are the sole responsibility of the campaign team and not the district, per South Carolina Ethics Commission Rules of Conduct. The campaign is a separate grassroots initiative led by volunteer citizens,” he said. “Second, questions about the production, content, or public distribution of campaign materials should be directed to a campaign chair as these materials are not produced or distributed by the district.”
Marino also said she feels the video does not accurately portray the schools’ situation.
“I’m very concerned the video downgrades our schools and is entirely too negative,” she said. “Quite frankly, I find the video offensive. I want the public to know that I did not approve of it, even though the Superintendent has stated the board has approved everything that has been brought forth.”
In July, Marino abstained when the board voted 7-0 to put the referendum to voters. Board member Shannon Lee was absent.
Marino has been on the board since a ninth seat was added in 2004 and is not seeking re-election. Her son, Scott Marino, is running unopposed for the seat.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.