A group of North Charleston community members, faith leaders and legislators called for a public apology and the removal of what they say are racist television ads targeting two Black school board members running for reelection.
A dozen or so activists and elected officials, including state Reps. Marvin Pendarvis and David Mack, gathered Thursday to condemn the advertisements, which began airing Tuesday.
Both ads in question were created and paid for by the Charleston Coalition for Kids, an education advocacy group created five months before the last Charleston County School Board election in 2018.
Sixteen candidates are vying for five open seats on the school board this November.
Board members Kevin Hollinshead and Chris Collins, two of four Black members on the existing school board, are running for two open North Charleston seats.
One ad aimed at Hollinshead cited a lawsuit filed nearly 15 years ago involving Student Assurance Services, a Minnesota-based insurance company. Student Assurance Services sued Hollinshead accusing him of fraud in 2006 as a result of his time working as an agent for Benedict College.
Hollinshead admitted he owed the company $144,667 and agreed to pay Student Assurance Services the amount in full, according to a 2007 confession of judgment filed in Charleston County court.
Hollinshead declined to confirm or deny the allegations outlined in the attack ad and referred a reporter to his attorney, Edward Pritchard.
"To categorize what Mr. Hollinshead was accused of doing as stealing is a gross mischaracterization of what took place and what was alleged," Pritchard said. "We are exploring all legal options."
A different ad took aim at Collins for voting in favor of a measure to implement a $14,428 annual salary for board members in 2017.
Hollinshead, Board Chairman Eric Mack and former board member Michael Miller voted in favor of the raise, according to a 2017 report.
The measure passed, but the board voted a week later to reverse the changes. Board members continue to receive a $25 stipend per meeting, said district spokesman Andy Pruitt, but the proposed salary was never awarded.
"The ad is dishonest and deceptive," Collins said. "It’s trying to demoralize good, God fearing people that faithfully serve the community, and it’s trying to paint them as crooks in order to get the kids’ coalition candidates elected."
Collins said he still supports non-extravagant salaries for school board members.
"All of the board members spend money to serve," he said.
School boards in South Carolina vary widely in rates of pay. Thirty receive no pay, according to the S.C. School Boards Association. Others receive more than $7,000 per year.
Both ads encourage viewers to instead vote for school board candidates Charles Monteith, a software engineer and former constituent school board member, and Courtney Waters, a senior director at Teach For America.
Waters and Monteith are both Black.
Activists argued Thursday the ads are racist, offensive and harmful to the North Charleston community.
"We don't need to demonize or discredit personally any candidate to elevate other candidates, especially when that pits Black candidates against Black candidates in our community, which is something that has been a tactic for years," Pendarvis said.
Josh Bell, executive director of the coalition, said everything reported in the ads is factual and that taxpayers deserve "competent, trustworthy individuals" charged with overseeing the district's more than $950 million budget.
"We need leaders focused on kids first, not on their own interests. ... We’ve put forth a fantastic group of candidates that we are proud to endorse, and we believe they will put students first and use every tool they can to improve public schools," Bell said.
Monteith said he has not seen the ads but takes the allegations very seriously.
"The position of a school board member is one that should model more than anything ... is trust," he said. "So any information that's out there, I am certainly, as a parent and as a voter, very glad to have so that I can make an informed decision."
At Thursday's news conference, community leaders called on the coalition to remove their ads from television and issue a public apology.
"The demonization of Black people is not going to fly anymore, and those attack ads, that's exactly what they did," said North Charleston pastor and social justice advocate Thomas Dixon.
Dixon commended Hollinshead's character and argued that it was wrong for the coalition to attack him for something that happened nearly 15 years ago.
The ads were meant to inform taxpayers and improve the democratic process, Bell said.
The coalition's top goal is to improve educational opportunities for all Charleston County students, he said, and that starts with strong leadership at the top.
Since the coalition was launched it has endorsed nine candidates for school board. Four have been Black.
"Bottom line, we need School Board members up to the job. Our kids deserve better," Bell said.
Coalition leaders do not plan to issue an apology or pull the ads.
Mack and other community members present, including Charleston County Councilman Teddie Pryor, also criticized the coalition's interests as a dark money interest group.
As a 501(c)4 social welfare group, the coalition is not required by law to report who their donors are or how much money they spend on campaign finance to the S.C. Ethics Commission.
In 2018, the group spent at least $235,000 endorsing its slate of school board candidates, all four of whom won.
Activists fear that if all five candidates the coalition endorsed earlier this week win in November, the entire nine-member board will be backed by the group.