The Berkeley County School District struck back on Sunday against a group that has questioned whether its $198 million school bond referendum violates state ethics laws and raised their own questions.
Superintendent Rodney Thompson said in a statement Sunday he is afraid that “the future of the district’s 31,000 children could be jeopardized due to recent efforts to distract voters from the real concerns of building needs in the county.”
Officials say the district is growing by about 900 students per year, and that 15 of the district’s 41 schools are out of capacity.
If passed, the referendum would provide funding for three new elementary schools, a new middle school, a new high school and renovations at 29 other schools.
Daniel Island lawyer Josh Whitley, who heads up the Berkeley Citizens for Sustainable Education, said Friday he plans to file a complaint with the state Ethics Commission because he believes he has proof that district employees have worked on the campaign on district time and used district resources, both of which are against the law.
He has filed a request for records from the district under the state Freedom of Information Act, but has also told the district he would drop his effort if they would accept responsibility and apologize. The district declined and maintained it had done nothing wrong.
On Sunday, district officials issued a statement that stopped short of apologizing.
“To the extent that any of the District’s 4,100 employees sent any emails that one might interpret as attempting to influence the school improvement referendum, either in favor of it or in opposition to it, we regret any misinterpretation,” Thompson said in the statement. “If any district employee sent an email on district equipment that could be interpreted as being in support of the referendum, I’m sure their enthusiasm was generated by what they thought was in the best interest of the students of Berkeley County. Our intentions have been to provide information and access to all parties within the SC Ethics guidelines.”
Thompson and communications director Amy Kovach, an employee Whitley said worked on the campaign during business hours, declined to comment beyond the statement issued by the district on Sunday night.
According to the statement, Thompson believes that district employee activities during school time relating to the referendum “have been intended to be within the scope of preparing informational materials, conducting public meetings, or responding to news media or citizens’ inquiries concerning the referendum,” as allowed by law.
“The opposition to the effort has run out of fruitful arguments and is using items not related to how to finance solutions to overcrowded schools instead of presenting a credible alternative,” Thompson said.
District officials also launched ethics accusations back at Whitley’s group, accusing the group of failing to file a statement of political organization with the Ethics Commission.
The Yes 4 Schools campaign has filed, listing $84,750 in contributions.
“The Ethics Commission says we don’t have to file,” Whitley said Sunday. “They were unaware they didn’t have to and they did file an ethics statement and you know what it shows?
“Contractors who build schools and big businesses are among their major donors.”
The top two donors, according to the filing, are Santee Cooper ($15,000) and the Jerry and Anita Zucker Family Foundation Inc. ($10,000). Several companies, including Landmark Construction, BB&T, Cooper River Partners LLC and the law firm Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, have donated $5,000.
A Sept. 26 email to Whitley from the Ethics Commission states, “There is no filing requirement for this committee.” Political action committees, political party committees or ballot measure committees are not required to file statements of economic interest.
“Although I am proud of the donations I have received. … I promised (donors) confidentiality and that I would take the public stone throwing,” Whitley said.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.