Church led by Charleston County School Board member Chris Collins hires attorney to fight lease termination
The church pastored by a Charleston County School Board member is fighting against the board's decision to kick it out of school district-owned property.
This is the latest development in a public and ongoing battle between Chris Collins and his school board colleagues on his church's use of the former Charlestowne Academy school building.
Some board members have raised concerns about Collins' apparent conflict of interest, and Collins' church has gotten in trouble for being late on its rent and using the space more than its lease allows.
Collins and the rest of the board agreed unanimously in November to end the Healing and Deliverance Church's lease of the space June 30.
“Rev. Collins told us through his vote and public comments (in November) that this was a decision he supported,” said Chairwomand Cindy Bohn Coats. “Now, we have a letter from his attorney that is 180 degrees different from what he said. Which statement does he want us to believe?”
John Jackson, the church's attorney, sent a letter in late May to the school district stating the church's intention to remain in the building pending negotiations for a new lease.
“It's a good building for the kind of activities they want to do,” Jackson said Tuesday. “They feel at home where they are, and they're upset about the way (the termination) was handled.”
The board ended the church's lease after the church appeared to violate its lease with the district by: exceeding the 16 hours per month it was allowed to use the space; failing to buy insurance; and allowing the space to be used for non-church-related activities, such as charter school meetings.
Since then, the district asked the church in February to pay $655 for using the space 16 hours more than the lease permitted during December and January. The church hasn't paid that money, and it hasn't been invoiced for any additional charges.
John Emerson, the district's attorney, said he plans to follow the board's directive and take the necessary steps to end the church's lease. The church's lease allowed either party to terminate it with 30 days notice; the church has been given seven months notice, he said.
Emerson briefed the board on the situation during executive session Monday night; Collins was excused from the room during that discussion.
After voting in November to end the lease, Collins said he thought the board was giving the church a “pretty good deal,” and it allowed the church time to plan for the future. On Tuesday, he said he couldn't talk about the situation and referred questions to Jackson.
Jackson said the church waited until now to retain an attorney because it didn't have the money to pay for those services. They're trying to put those funds together, he said.
The church wants to stay put because it likes the area, and it's where most of its congregation resides, Jackson said. He wasn't sure whether church leaders had looked for another spot, he said. Jackson said the lease termination wasn't handled in a business-like matter, and it was full of “political chicanery.”
Coats said she agreed that the lease wasn't professional in that it gives Collins' church a far better deal than the district. The building costs $49,000 annually to maintain, and the church pays $664 per month, or $7,968 annually. The church is the only group that uses the space, so the district has to cover the building's other costs.
“I think (the church) got an amazingly generous lease,” she said. “I'm not sure that was very professional. I don't know how they can feel like they got a bad deal. How did (Collins) get such a great deal?”
Jackson said he hasn't talked with Emerson yet, and he's trying to pin down exactly what Collins' church wants in the new lease. Generally, the church would like the lease to last multiple years, as well as be more open in terms of the access it would have to the space, he said. That likely would cost more, and church leaders understand that, he said.
He doesn't intend to file a lawsuit against the district, but he said he would look to “other legal avenues” if the board isn't reasonable.
His goal is to have a new arrangement by June 30. And if the board doesn't allow the church to stay, “that's when politics comes in,” Jackson said. “I'm aware of politics and I try not to step in it.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.