Berkeley School District under investigation over Yes for Schools campaign
As Berkeley County School District officials geared up for their $198 million school improvement referendum last year, District Communications Director Amy Kovach wrote an email to one of three volunteer chairs of the Yes 4 Schools committee.
The district’s lawyer for the bond referendum would attend the next meeting, she wrote to Chad Vail on March 28, “to advise and provide insight to the group on what the district staff can and cannot do to support campaign activities.”
Now the S.C. Attorney General’s Office has requested that the State Ethics Commission and the State Law Enforcement Division look into accusations that the district violated those very laws.
State law makes it is illegal for public officers or employees to “authorize the use of public funds, property, or time to influence the outcome of an election.”
Ethics violations are punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, according to the Ethics Commission.
The accusations are centered on the district’s Yes 4 Schools campaign, which asked voters to approve $198 million in general obligation bonds to build five new schools and renovate 29 others, mainly to ease overcrowding.
The district maintained that the campaign was run by volunteers that included Vail, Jane Pulling and others.
Daniel Island lawyer Josh Whitley raised questions in October about whether the district was using its own resources to produce fliers and videos and to promote the campaign to district employees and the community.
He points to an email Kovach wrote on July 19 that says “the campaign is being run internally from my desk.”
Whitley said he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the district after hearing concerns from others. He asked for copies of emails to and from Superintendent Rodney Thompson, Assistant Superintendent Archie Franchini and Kovach.
Whitley was an outspoken opponent of the referendum, forming a grass-roots group called Berkeley Citizens for Sustainable Education. He also is the son and brother of district employees and brother-in-law of board member Scott Marino.
After receiving the requested emails, Whitley said, “Based on my review of the public record, I went to the attorney general.”
He issued a statement Monday that said, “I cannot comment beyond confirming that I turned over all evidence to the South Carolina Attorney General due to my belief that the evidence showed serious, systematic, and continuous unethical or illegal activities being conducted out of the district office with authorization or at least the complicity of several members of the school board.”
In a letter dated Jan. 17, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh requested the investigation, writing, “We have received information that indicates potential numerous violations of the South Carolina Ethics Act, and other misconduct in office.”
SLED spokesman Thom Berry said Monday he was unable to confirm if there was an investigation under way.
On Monday, the district released a statement that says, “For months there have been rumors and threats arising out of the school improvement bond referendum. As expected, concerns have been raised about the district’s efforts. ... Some of these concerns are now under review by state level authorities and the district is fully cooperating with the individuals involved but has been directed not to discuss the matter. The district will continue to fully cooperate and will provide further responsive information when it is appropriate to do so. We appreciate your understanding that we are not at liberty to discuss this matter further at this time or answer any questions.”
Former school board member Terry Hardesty, now chairman of the county Republican Party, said he was at the meeting at the Attorney General’s Office where the information was presented. Before the referendum, Hardesty, also a member of Berkeley Citizens for Sustainable Education, was another vocal opponent of the issue.
“To me, the biggest disappointment is that they were using district resources to promote the campaign,” he said. “I think it’s really super-hypocritical for a board as a group to sit in judgment of students who break the rules it has written, but the board itself can violate those rules without any retribution. It’s probably the worst possible message we can teach young people.”Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.