Charleston County School Board member Chris Collins has permission to use a shuttered school building solely for his church, but he has allowed others to use it for birthday parties and charter school meetings.
Collins’ lease allows his church to use the former Charlestowne Academy building for 16 hours a month, but records indicate that the church is exceeding that limit.
Collins’ lease requires his church to have insurance to use the space, but the church did not have proof of coverage until Oct. 10, which was after The Post and Courier began asking questions about its use of the building.
Collins’ church appears to have violated its lease with the school district in at least three ways, and district officials said they are evaluating the situation to make a recommendation on whether he should be allowed to continue using the building.
Collins is the pastor of Healing Ministries Baptist Church, and he signed a lease agreement with the district in February 2010 to use the building on Rivers Avenue for 16 hours each month.
Collins contends that the lease doesn’t prohibit him from using the space for other gatherings, such as charter school meetings and birthday parties, and he said his church has insurance to use the building now. He said he does use the building more than 16 hours each month, and he plans to ask the district to amend the lease.
He wasn’t aware of any way the church was violating its lease, and the church would be happy to address any issues, he said.
“If I am, they need to point it out,” he said. “It isn’t clear that we are. If we are, we sure want to clear it up.”
The school board will make the final decision on whether his lease should be terminated. Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said she hasn’t received any details about the situation, but she said she expects board members to be held to the same standard as the public.
“I think this will be something the board will have to look into,” she said.
Collins’ use of the building has generated controversy from the start. When he first asked to lease the building for his church, some of his board colleagues said that appeared to be a conflict of interest.
The board ultimately agreed to approve the lease, but another red flag was raised in August 2011 when Collins was three months late on his rent. The church pays $664 per month.
Collins’ church use of the building came up again in September when a flier circulated about an “Interfaith Harmony Center” gathering that would take place at the building.
It was unclear how that group was related to the church, or whether its use of the building would be permissible under Collins’ lease.
The Post and Courier reached out to school district attorney John Emerson on Sept. 28 for more information, and Emerson said he needed to look into the situation.
On Oct. 2 the district had not provided any information, and Collins found out about the newspaper’s request. Collins was running for re-election for the School Board; he won Tuesday with 44 percent of the vote.
“If U plan on writing something harmfull to my career on the school board or concerning our church, I ask that U consider it is election time,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Post and Courier.
“By the way, why are U now interested in our church? What about the other churches and individuals that use district property.”
Although other churches lease district buildings, those buildings are occupied by schools, which means the churches’ use of the space is limited to certain times on the weekend. Healing Ministries Baptist Church is the only group that leases the former Charlestowne Academy building.
Collins wrote in e-mails that he and his church director, Howie Comen, would be willing to meet in person for an interview, and he would give a date and time when they were available.
On Oct. 11, Collins said Comen and the rest of the church were available to meet only on Wednesdays at 7:45 p.m. He said the whole church wanted to talk with the newspaper.
Neither Collins nor the newspaper could meet either of the following two Wednesday nights because of previously scheduled school board candidate forums, and both agreed to do so at 7:45 p.m. on Halloween.
On Oct. 31, Collins ended the interview 37 minutes after it began saying, “We’re out of time. ... I’m sorry. We’ll answer one final question only.”
The Post and Courier asked Collins whether he had anything further he would like to say, and he responded, “No. God bless you.”
Using the building
Comen and Collins described in detail the Interfaith Harmony Center, which is an outreach ministry of the church. The idea for the center came from Comen, the church’s director and a Jew who has been preaching on the Old Testament monthly at Healing Ministries.
Comen had been involved in a statewide interfaith effort, and the idea was to start a local ministry of that work based out of Collins’ church.
Emerson said he didn’t think that would be a violation of the church’s lease with the district. Birthday parties and charter school meetings, however, would not be consistent with the terms of the lease, he said.
Collins said multiple birthday parties had been held in the building outside of the Sundays and Wednesdays when the church holds services. He said it’s usually someone involved with the church, but he didn’t know whose birthday parties were held there.
When asked whether his child’s birthday party was held there, he said, “I don’t know who it was. I don’t remember. I don’t remember. We’ve had more than one birthday. We’ve had several birthday parties. ... We can do that.”
The church also has allowed organizers of the Village Charter School to meet at the building more than once. Collins said that meeting wasn’t a “church purpose” as required by the lease, but he said churches can lend meeting space.
He said he supported the school’s premise of helping at-risk students. Until May, Comen served as leader of the Village Charter group.
“There’s no language (in the lease) that says nothing else is allowed,” Collins said. “It doesn’t restrict us from having a meeting in the building.”
The lease states, “The church will use the premises solely for church purposes.”
Time and insurance
The lease authorizes the church to use the building for 16 hours per month.
The Post and Courier submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for documents showing how often Collins used the building. The district’s records show when the church’s security code was used to turn off the building’s alarm, but it doesn’t show how long the building was occupied during those times.
The church’s security code was used an average of 20 different days per month from January to August of this year, and Emerson wrote in an Oct. 16 letter to Collins that that “clearly indicates use of the facility for more than 16 hours per month.”
Collins said the church probably has exceeded that 16 hours of use since it started using the building, but he doesn’t ask for power to be turned on to the building every time he’s there. The 16 hours specified in the lease was an estimate, he said.
He said he’s constantly going into the building to do everything from writing sermons to cleaning the bathrooms, he said.
“There’s never been a concern about that,” he said.
The district also requires the church to have insurance coverage. That’s a requirement for anyone who rents a district building; if anything were to happen on district property and the group didn’t have insurance, the school district could be liable.
The Post and Courier requested all proofs of insurance the church had submitted to the district, including expired documents. The only document provided was for insurance coverage starting Oct. 10, which is after the newspaper questioned whether it had coverage.
Collins said the person who used to handle the church’s paperwork no longer goes to the church. That person put those documents somewhere and Collins doesn’t know where they are, he said.
Emerson said some of the information Collins provided to The Post and Courier would seem to support a recommendation that his lease be terminated, but he needed to further review that before making any decisions.
The board’s agenda already has been set for Monday, its next meeting, and this issue was not on it.
The schedule includes the swearing-in of new members. Collins will take the oath of office for another four-year term.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 843-937-5546.