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Recounts likely in multiple Columbia-area school board races

Richand Two Institute of Innovation

Richland County School District Two shares its office with the Richland Library Sandhills campus in Northeast Columbia, where the district serves over 28,000 students. The school board faced criticism on Jan. 10, 2023, after forming a panel to address problems in a report from the state Office of the Inspector General. File/T. Michael Boddie/Staff

COLUMBIA — Teresa Holmes, the only incumbent running in a 12-way race for four seats on the Richland County School District Two board, appeared headed for defeat on election night, though her close fifth-place finish will likely lead to a recount.

Winning the race were newcomers Tamika Shuler Washington, Angela Nash, Niki Porter and Joe Trapp. The results are likely to bring about a dynamic change in the makeup of the board serving Northeast Columbia, which was the subject of a scathing state investigative report released Nov. 4. 

In Lexington-Richland School District Five, another district that's been fighting allegations of dysfunctional leadership from parents and teachers, incumbent school board Vice Chairman Ken Loveless appears to have narrowly been defeated. 

In a five-way race for two seats, Loveless finished 6 votes behind challenger Mike Satterfield. Elizabeth Barnhardt led the field, but all three were close enough to trigger a recount. 

On the Richland side of the district, also featuring a four-way race for two seats, challengers Kevin Scully and Kimberly Snipes each received close to 30 percent of the vote, unseating incumbents Nikki Gardner and Tifani Moore. 

In Richland County School District One, where a state prosecutor accused the board leadership of stonewalling a criminal investigation into a former employee's embezzlement charges, retired teacher and community activist Barbara Weston jumped out to an early lead by 52 percent over Hamilton Jacobs and Richard Moore, easily winning the race for an open seat.

Elsewhere in the Columbia area, 11 candidates were vying for three seats in Lexington District One board. The winners were Beth Shealy with 19.22 percent, Chris Rice with 15.01 percent and Katie McCown with 10.84 percent. However, Harriet Poe Coker trailed McCown with 10.45, a difference of 397 votes, so this race appears headed for a recount.

Four people ran for three open school board seats in the neighboring Lexington County School District Two, serving West Columbia and Cayce. The two incumbent members who sought re-election combined for a lead with more 60 percent of the vote. Incumbent and Board Chairwoman Christina Rucker finished with 28.23 percent of the vote and incumbent Linda Alford-Wooten came away with 27.08 percent.

Challengers Kevin Key and Chuck Hightower kept their race tight enough for a potential recount, with Key finishing head by just 6 votes. It initially appeared that Hightower had won when all the precincts had been counting, but election officials completed the counting of absentee ballots overnight, which put Key ahead.

Richland 2

The State Inspector General's Nov. 4 report on Richland Two said rifts among board members have sometimes become personal and interviewed with the board's ability keep up with its responsibilities. The report said the conflict was often between two factions of the board, a four-member majority and a three-member minority.

Election results appear likely to shift control from one faction to the other.

Of the four incumbent majority-faction members just one, Holmes, sought reelection. She came in fifth out of the 12 candidates, a result which would not return her to the board if it held up.

Nash led with 14.06 percent of the vote, followed by Washington with 13.32 percent and Porter with 10.34 percent. Trapp appeared to have taken the fourth spot with 9.78 percent to Holmes' 9.39 percent, a difference of 506 votes.

Nash and Trapp have both voiced sympathy for issues championed by the minority faction, including parent autonomy and the idea that "parents are the primary stakeholders" of their students.

Washington and Porter have emphasized the need to address teacher staffing and support for current and potential teachers. Although neither has aligned themselves with any faction, their positions are closer to those of Holmes and the majority faction.

Since only the seats of the current four-member majority faction were up for a vote this cycle, Nash and Trapp joining the board would likely give the current three-member minority faction five members and a 5-2 majority. 

Lexington-Richland 5

During Ken Loveless' tenure on the Lexington-Richland 5 board for the 17,000-student school district, he has traded lawsuits with critics. He now faces a hearing with the South Carolina Ethics Commission in response to a formal complaint.

Five candidates including Loveless competed for two seats in the Lexington County portion of the district, leading to a photo finish in which the top two candidates will prevail, but the margins are close enough to involve all three in a recount.

Elizabeth Barnhardt led with 23.64 percent of the vote, followed by Satterfield with 23.32 percent and Loveless with 23.27 percent. Only 113 votes separated the three contenders, with only 14 between Loveless and Satterfield, out of 31,635 votes cast in the race.

It initially appeared with all precincts reporting that Loveless had narrowly been reelected, but election officials completed counting of absentee ballots overnight, putting Satterfield ahead.

No recount will be needed on the Richland side of the district. In the four-way race for two seats, Snipes and Scully led the field with 29.5 percent and 28.82 percent respectively. Gardner and Moore trailed with 21.76 percent and 18.64 percent respectively.  

In addition to the ethics accusations against Loveless, the district recently has seen controversy with its release of summaries of a still-ongoing procurement audit report, looking back at an earlier administration. Some parents have said the report raises more questions than it answers. 

They have said they don't understand why the audit summary, released in September by the New Mexico-based accounting firm the school district is working with, outlines the complaints filed with the State Ethics Commission against Loveless, and why it includes copies of past board members' derogatory emails to or about the district vice chairman.

Over the summer, attorney Andrea White publicly released her letter of resignation from her job representing Lexington-Richland Five, which said the school board is "operating in a manner that is dysfunctional," but stopped short of specific details.

Richland 1

In addition to the controversy in Richland District One over whether the district cooperated with prosecutors investigating embezzlement, board members have also been under fire from parents.

Responding to parent complaints, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has called for the state to launch an investigation similar to the recent one in Richland Two.

Robert Lominack, the incumbent who has served the 22,000-student school district for one year, ran unopposed for a different seat, which board member Beatrice King vacated after serving for 10 years. 

Voters had a choice between three candidates for Lominack's former seat. One of those candidates, Barbara Weston, helped lead the charge for a state investigation into the district's finances and management practices, and called for the board to fire Superintendent Craig Witherspoon.

With all of the Richland County precincts reporting, Weston held 52.54 percent of the vote, ahead of Jacobs with 24.83 percent and Richard E. Moore 21.77 percent.

Clarification: The final results for all Lexington County races have been updated after final results were reported earlier, due to absentee votes that Lexington County elections officials were unable to count until after they had reported all precincts as counted. This changed the order of finish for candidates in the Lexington Two district and the Lexington portion of the Lexington-Richland Five district. 

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K-12 Education Reporter

T. Michael covers education in the Columbia area. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina and communications at the University of Denver, and worked as a reporter covering Denver Public Schools.

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