A senator representing Colleton County is attempting to repeal redrawn school board election districts over transparency issues and allegations of political payback.
Sen. Chip Campsen filed a bill Wednesday to repeal legislation sponsored by Sen. Clementa Pinckney that redraws school board members' districts in Colleton County for November's election. Pinckney introduced the bill May 7, and it was signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley on May 16.
Bills involving the redrawing of school board election districts are voted on only by the local legislative delegation, but Campsen said he was unaware of the measure until after it was signed into law, which is a departure from normal protocol. He's also heard from residents in Colleton County who were taken by surprise - including some school board members who have been drawn out of the districts they represent.
School board members William Bowman Jr. and P.A. Pournelle were both moved to other election districts as part of the changes. Bowman is now pitted against school board member Paul Haase. All three, along with board member John Barnes, voted in March to dismiss Colleton County schools Superintendent Leila Williams who is at the center of several investigations.
Campsen said that after speaking with County Council members and business leaders in Colleton County, he's concerned Pinckney's bill was "payback" for Williams' dismissal.
Pinckney said there was no payback, and that he only was trying to ensure the district was following federal election laws.
Bobby Bowers, director of the Office of Research and Statistics for the S.C. Budget and Control Board, said his office, which was responsible for redrawing the election district lines, received specific instructions from Pinckney on how to draw the lines, which included moving some school board members to other districts.
"We knew what the goal was when it was done," Bowers said without elaborating further.
He said typically his office tries to avoid moving sitting school board members to other districts when they redraw district lines.
Pinckney denied that the bill was meant to do anything other than make sure the school board's election districts comply with the Voting Rights Act.
"The bill is ... to make sure we have a school board that complies with one man, one vote and equal apportionment," said Pinckney, D-Ridgeland. "There are many school districts doing comparable things. There are several counties going through the same process."
Redistricting is done once a decade to make sure political district lines reflect population changes tied to updated data from the U.S. Census, Bowers said. The goal is to even out the population in each voting district.
The state is in the process of redrawing election districts for school boards across the state based on the 2010 Census. Colleton County was on Bowers' list, but it wasn't at the top until Pinckney filed his bill, he said.
On March 18, the Colleton County school board voted 4-3 to dismiss Williams, the former superintendent, after the district became the focus of several investigations during her tenure. Williams started as superintendent in 2009. Her contract, which had just been renewed in November, was not set to expire until 2016.
At the time of Williams' dismissal, some community members who supported Williams alleged her firing was motivated by race because she is black.
According to reports published in The Colletonian newspaper, Colleton County NAACP President Rev. Jack Lewis proclaimed that board members who voted to remove Williams would be "voted out." School board member Wayne Shider, who voted against Williams' dismissal, told the newspaper that Williams had been "lynched" by the board.
Lewis could not be reached for comment and Dwight James, executive director of the South Carolina NAACP, was unfamiliar with the situation in Colleton County when reached last week.
The school board has appointed Franklin Foster, who is also black, as acting superintendent. The board members who voted to dismiss Williams pointed to a variety of ongoing issues ranging from poor student achievement to several administrative and criminal investigations into Williams and the school district as the reason for their vote.
Last year, the S.C. Department of Education launched an investigation into allegations of grade tampering in Colleton County schools during the 2011-12 school year and other questions about the use of unqualified teachers to instruct or coordinate lessons for medically home-bound students. The investigation revealed one confirmed instance of a failing student's grade being changed to passing, and that the district employed unqualified teachers in its program for medically home-bound students.
An independent audit of the school district's procurement procedures completed in February revealed misuse of school district credit cards, including questionable purchases of food, 25 transactions that exceeded the district's single transaction limit of $500 and two purchases deemed personal expenses. Williams, according to The Colletonian, admitted to using a district credit card for personal expenses but that she reimbursed the district for those charges.
Other concerns included: the hiring of a convicted felon in a nonteaching role and Williams' failure to inform the board of a teacher's alleged sexual relationship with a student and a related criminal investigation.
The State Law Enforcement Division has four active investigations underway involving the Colleton County School District.
Thom Berry, a spokesman for the agency, confirmed the probes but would not divulge the nature of those investigations or which agency had requested SLED to take a look. No charges have been filed.
The Colleton County School District includes 7 elementary schools, 1 middle school, 1 high school and 1 career technology center, according to the county's website. The district serves about 6,000 students.
Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, said it seems more than a coincidence that several of the school board members who voted to remove Williams are affected by the election district changes.
"Three of the four are in jeopardy so that does not look good," Campsen said. "That appears to be some form of retribution for making a courageous decision."
One day after filing to repeal Pinckney's bill, Campsen also filed a bill with his own plan for redrawing the Colleton school board election districts that does not move any school board members to other districts.
Attorney John Hetrick, a member of the Colleton Business Alliance, said he and others in the county are concerned that Pinckney's redistricting bill was fast-tracked through the Legislature without any input from the community affected by it.
"Whenever districts are drawn or redrawn in a county, there ought to be some public input, and there was no public input in respect to redrawing these school district lines," Hetrick said. "I certainly think it would be unfortunate if that has been done from a retribution standpoint, and I hope that is not the case."
The swift and somewhat secret passage of the changes also is an issue for Campsen.
"It's the most untransparent thing I've ever seen happen in my years in the Senate," he said.
Typically when election districts are changed, new maps are drafted and the public is invited to view the changes and give comment, Campsen said. In this case, he said, there was "zero" public input.
Bowman and Pournelle were among the school board members taken by surprise by Pinckney's bill.
"Why it was done, in my opinion, was confusing," Bowman said. "The lines were nowhere near my house."
Bowman declined to speculate whether the changes could be retribution but the changes did raise Pournelle's suspicions.
"It's strange, especially that the ones that voted to remove (Williams) with the exception of one board member have been redistricted," said Pournelle, who has represented the same district on the school board for 30 years.
Regardless of intent, Bowman fears that upheaval of the school board amid such uncertainty for the district could be detrimental to the community, noting that a total of five board members could be up for re-election if the new district lines stand.
"Having five board seats up for re-election - that in of itself can shake the foundation of any school district, especially a school system that is in the condition that we're in now," he said.
The practical implications of the changes are still unclear. Bert Duffie, general counsel for the Colleton County School Board, said he's researching whether a special election must be held in November or whether Bowman and Pournelle will be able to serve out their terms. Neither Bowman nor Pournelle were up for re-election until 2016. Three other school board members, including Haase, are normally scheduled for re-election in November.
Duffie said he's unsure of what the normal procedure would be for redrawing school board election districts. He didn't represent the school board when the election districts were last changed.
Time is of the essence if Campsen hopes to thwart the changes with his own legislation. One of the measures must pass before the General Assembly concludes its session June 5.
Pournelle is worried about whether there's enough time for either of Campsen's measures to make it into law, but given that Pinckney's bill made it through in nine days, he's hopeful.
"It didn't take long for the other one to get passed," he said.
Glenn Smith and Jeremy Borden contributed to this report. Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546.