RIDGELAND - The Internal Revenue Service and the FBI are investigating the operation of the Jasper County School District, which is led by two former Charleston area educators.

Investigators were at the district offices in Ridgeland on Wednesday and Thursday. The district had no prior knowledge of the investigation, said spokeswoman Shellie Murdaugh.

"The district superintendent, Dr. Vashti Washington, has directed all employees to cooperate with law enforcement personnel," Murdaugh said.

On Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney James May sent a letter to district officials asking them to keep financial documents, the minutes of school board meetings, employment files for top officials and all letters and emails between district employees.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake said she could not provide additional details, that the letter speaks for itself. She said the U.S. Department of Justice does not confirm or deny investigations.

The district, one of the state's poorest and worst performing, is led by Washington, a former Charleston County School District employee, and Arthur Lee Holmes, chief officer of Academics and Human Resources who worked for the Berkeley County School District.

The beleaguered district, which since 2011 has undergone a consolidation, has received failing grades on federal accountability standards for the past two years, and has been labeled "at risk" on its state report card for several years. The district comprises two elementary schools, a middle school, a high school and an alternative school.

Four-year contract

Washington was employed by the Charleston County district from 2000 to 2010, according to district spokesman Jason Sakran. She spent a year as assistant principal at Schroder Middle School, was principal of Mt. Zion Elementary from 2001 to 2005, and was an associate superintendent until she left the district. Before that she worked in Colleton, Berkeley and Dorchester District 2.

She was hired by Jasper County in 2010 and given a four-year contract with an annual salary of $165,000. The contract has been extended three times, mostly recently in December, and is now good through June 30, 2017, according to news reports.

The December extension came after a closed-door meeting during which the school board conducted Washington's annual performance evaluation. The evaluation did not involve any written forms, a method used by many districts statewide that has been questioned because it could be an attempt to circumvent the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Despite the contract extension, board members and the public have at times called for Washington's ouster. Last fall, community members held several public rallies calling for her removal.

Washington did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

First Steps board

Holmes formerly worked for the Berkeley County School District, most recently as principal of Marrington Elementary. Berkeley officials were unable Thursday to verify his dates of employment or what positions he held.

He was hired by Jasper in June 2010. That September he was charged in Goose Creek with embezzling more than $5,000 of public funds, after authorities said he took about $7,000 of $18,232 raised by a fundraiser at Marrington, according to the Jasper County Sun.

The Post and Courier on Thursday was unable to determine the outcome of that case, but he does not have a criminal record in the state, according to a check with the State Law Enforcement Division. Holmes was represented in the case by North Charleston lawyer Eduardo Curry, who did not return calls to his office Thursday.

In December, Holmes was appointed to the Charleston County First Steps board by the Charleston County Legislative Delegation, according to the Charleston Chronicle. He is also pastor of Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Hollywood.

Ongoing issues

The Jasper district has undergone several legal challenges in the past several months. Since July 1, the district has spent $217,372 on legal advice from the Columbia-based firm of Childs & Halligan, according to a response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Post and Courier. Since July 1, 2011, the district has paid the firm $589,462.

Among the district's troubles:

It has an ongoing dispute over "multi-million dollar claims involving construction defects" in facilities built in 2007, Washington said in an email to The Post and Courier. About 20 percent of the district's legal fees have been spent on the case, she said.

In October, the school board voted to appeal a circuit court ruling in a lawsuit brought by the board against Jasper County Council over the authority to levy taxes for the district's operating budget, according to the Island Packet. The school board sued July 15 to restore funding after County Council cut property taxes for the schools by about $444,000.

Also in October, the S.C. Department of Education denied the district's appeal of its most recent "F" rating on federal accountability standards, which Washington told the board was based on "bad data."

State lawmakers are considering the Parent Empowerment Act, a bill that would allow the state's Education Department to take over districts that are mismanaged or need improvement if a majority of parents call for it.

"I've got faith in the children of Jasper County," state Secretary of Education Mick Zais told the Island Packet in January. "But the adults and leadership in the system have shown they are not managing the dollars well to produce the student-learning outcomes that other districts with similar situations have been able to."

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.