COLUMBIA — Days after returning from a weekend conference on Hilton Head Island, Richland One commissioners said the trip was important — and also acknowledged members of the public who paid for their expenses.
“To the Richland County taxpayers, thank you,” board chairman Aaron Bishop said referring to the South Carolina School Board Association’s annual meeting, held Feb. 18 through 21 at the $146 per night Hilton Head Marriott hotel.
Julie Latham, a former Richland One parent who now runs a watchdog group that monitors district spending, said she was taken aback by commissioners' remarks.
"I’m not opposed to conferences, but what I am opposed to is him thanking us as if we had a choice," she said. "We didn’t send them out of our own volition. They took money out of the budget and paid their way to go to a conference while still not opening schools, and therein lies the hypocrisy."
About 300 school board members and superintendents from across South Carolina attended the event, which also carried a $225 registration fee.
Organizers declined to provide a list of all registrants for the conference, which was its first to be held fully in-person since last year. Officials got approval for the event from the state on Jan. 14 as meeting COVID-19 protocols for gatherings of more than 250 people, a rule that was lifted March 1.
The in-person conference surprised some parents whose children were not back in school classrooms full-time. Richland One has split classes between in-person and virtual for much of the academic year, but now has plans to bring students back to schools five days a week starting March 8.
Six of Richland One's seven-person governing board attended the conference, along with Superintendent Craig Witherspoon, district officials told The Post and Courier. They included Richland One board member Jamie Devine, who is the state school board association’s president-elect.
Board member Beatrice King did not go. Total costs of Richland One's trip have not been released.
The trip came amid reporting by The Post and Courier exposing excessive spending by public agencies as part of its Uncovered investigation. The first installment, published Feb. 14, revealed how misconduct and lavish spending flourishes because of exceptions in state ethics laws, weak enforcement and shrinking scrutiny as news deserts grow.
“Thank you for believing that it is important for us to receive professional growth opportunities. Our teachers have professional development days, so why can’t the school board have it,” Bishop said during half hour-long discussion about the trip during a board meeting on Feb. 23. “If we are making critical decisions from these seats, we should take advantage of the opportunity that’s afforded to us by way of our constituents who make it possible.”
Attendees received 14 credit hours of training to attend breakout sessions such as "Leadership in the era of pandemics," "strong board, strong superintendent — no problem" and how best to bring students back for face-to-face instruction under COVID-19.
“We’re trying to provide much-needed professional development for our members in a safe manner,” association director Scott Price told The Post and Courier in February. “We’ve taken a number of steps to ensure the safety of attendees and our staff.”
That included mask mandates, temperature screenings and the absence of hall exhibitors. Even so, the conference was viewed as a necessity by organizers, Devine said.
“The purpose of conferences is that we strategically give a competitive advantage for our students and staff to ensure we get better at what we do and continue to grow this organization,” Devine said.
As of March 3, 61 percent of the state’s 1,267 K-12 schools were offering a full week of in-person instruction, and Richland One is transitioning to such a schedule over the next two weeks.
Commissioners said they learned about topics that will benefit the 24,000-student district, such as how to foster relationships between elected officials and superintendents and the need to monitor air quality systems in older facilities as more reopen on a full-time basis.
“What we don't realize is even though we are in a pandemic, the work of the board and the superintendent and the district continues,” commissioner Cheryl Harris said. “I came back with a lot of somethings that I didn't know that I need to know in order to be effective, so when I sit at this table, I can make effective decisions for all children.”