A recent retiree with a career's worth of experience in public education, Paul Padron took $3,000 out of his savings account and figured that would be enough campaign money to run for the Charleston County School Board in 2018.
"I didn't know what dark money was," Padron said. "I had no idea."
Padron's campaign war chest, along with all of the other candidates' was eclipsed by the spending of a newly formed nonprofit group, the Charleston Coalition for Kids. With no public disclosures of its fundraising and few hints about its political agenda, the organization dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertisements for its chosen slate of four candidates, all of whom won.
The Charleston Coalition for Kids was the focus of a forum held at the International Longshoremen's Association Hall in Charleston on Thursday night, hosted by the local activist group Quality Education Project and titled "Shining a Light on Dark Money and Privatization in CCSD." Twenty people attended.
The coalition made waves when it announced its formation five months before the election. It published a list of founding members that included some political heavy hitters, such as North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott, and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who later asked for his name to be removed from the group's website.
The coalition also included some of the wealthiest business people in South Carolina, including Ben Navarro and Anita Zucker. Navarro, a financier, has helped fund a private-public partnership, Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood, in North Charleston. It also included parent advocates from Charleston RISE, who received training from the charter school lobbying group SouthCarolinaCAN.
The coalition's advertisements backed four candidates in the race, all of whom won: Cindy Bohn Coats, Kate Darby, Joyce Green and the Rev. Eric Mack. The same slate of candidates also received endorsements from the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee and The Post and Courier’s editorial board.
The full extent of the coalition's fundraising and spending are unknown since, under South Carolina campaign law, nonprofit groups are not required to file the same ethics reports as candidate campaigns. A spokesman for the group has declined to answer questions about its funders, spending or specific political agenda.
There is at least one hint at the size of the operation, though: Political advertising records from the Federal Communications Commission show that the Charleston Coalition for Kids spent at least $235,000 on television commercials in the lead-up to the election. The Quality Education Project has estimated the group's total spending might have been close to $750,000. The coalition has declined The Post and Courier's requests to disclose its expenditures.
Josh Bell, executive director of the Charleston Coalition for Kids, disputed the way his group was characterized in Facebook posts about the event.
"Privatization has never been part of our agenda. We care about excellent public schools for all kids. Great principals and teachers deserve autonomy and resources to educate," Bell said in an email Thursday.
"The board must aim for ambitious improvements goals, and be really honest about what is and is not working," he added. "Teachers and leaders need best in class curriculum and professional development to meet the needs of students. Families deserve to know how a school is performing and whether the district has a plan to get every child an opportunity they deserve."
A fifth school board member, Charleston Coalition for Kids founding member Chris Fraser, was appointed by the local legislative delegation in March to fill a vacant seat. Nearly every Republican member of the delegation supported Fraser, while nearly every Democrat opposed him.
Padron and Sarah Johnson both mentioned that Fraser was one of the Coalition members who interviewed them as candidates.
"I cannot tell you how surreal the experience was in this election," said Johnson, who previously lost a race for the school board in 2014. She called the infusion of dark money in 2018 "an attack on our democracy."
The coalition has said it intends to endorse candidates again in 2020. Five of the nine seats on the board, including Fraser's, will be up for election.