On the surface, The Post and Courier’s latest Uncovered installment exposes a school superintendent whose bad behavior went unpunished in a small, poor school district whose high school and middle school and one of its three elementary schools are ranked among the worst in South Carolina.
But the investigation by Stephen Hobbs and Thad Moore points to the larger problems of school boards whose primary interest is something other than serving the public and a State Board of Education that’s fixated on punishing teachers who move in the middle of a school year — think about that for a moment, if you’ve ever had to relocate because, say, your spouse got a job in another state — and has no interest when the bosses become abusive to employees and taxpayers.
And those problems in turn help explain why South Carolina struggles to provide a decent education to all children.
Wanda Andrews’ underlying misdeed might seem small — a missed deadline, a technical oversight. But she covered up her oversight and in so doing transformed a paperwork problem into a fraudulent action.
Contemporaneously, the superintendent of the Lee County School District engaged in petty, tyrannical behavior — having critics kicked out of school board meetings and using tax money to install spy equipment in offices of employees she thought might be complaining about her. And if you don't think that kind of behavior drives off good employees, well, you've never worked around it.
While she was missing legal deadlines on her own job, she was getting paid as a consultant for another school district … while paying the superintendent of that other district to do consulting work for her. That feels a whole lot like a quid pro quo arrangement, and the State Law Enforcement Division has been investigating it for more than two years.
The state Education Department concluded that this all added up to unprofessional behavior and recommended that she be banned from the profession for three years, much as teachers routinely are for smaller offenses.
But as Mr. Hobbs and Mr. Moore report, the state Board of Education declined to suspend Dr. Andrews for what it agreed was unprofessional behavior, opting instead for a slap-on-the-wrist public reprimand. This was nothing new. Only one of the seven superintendents who faced board review over the past decade was suspended. The board similarly punted on a superintendent who told an employee she’d “slit her throat” at a staff meeting if she talked to the school board and one who traveled on district time to paid out-of-state speaking engagements, in violation of the state ethics law.
That track record raises long-running questions about why we even have a State Board of Education — a purely political body whose members are appointed by small groups of legislators and who usually serve as a rubber stamp for the state education superintendent, except when they make ridiculous decisions like this.
Of course, the Board of Education’s inaction didn’t prevent the Lee County School Board from firing, suspending or in some other way disciplining Dr. Andrews. Instead, the school board came to her defense.
And that raises long-running questions about the value of local school boards, some of which do an excellent job, and some of which don’t.
Poverty is a big part of South Carolina’s education problem. It’s much more difficult to teach children who are raised in poverty, whose parents can’t or don’t provide the foundation they need to start school ready to learn and the encouragement and support they need to succeed. These kids can learn, but they need great teachers who can spend time bringing them along — which poor school districts often can’t afford, even with the extra funding the Legislature provides to help compensate for their small tax bases.
But some poor districts do a great job against all odds. The difference almost always is leadership: school boards that are willing to hire good superintendents who are able to hire good principals who are given the freedom and resources to hire good teachers, and get rid of bad ones.
Too many school board members are more interested in providing jobs and business opportunities for their friends and family than in educating the children in their communities. This creates a variety of pathologies, from districts that have a tough time hiring and keeping good superintendents to boards that don’t worry about what their superintendents do, as long as they don’t rock the boat.
There’s no silver bullet for fixing education in South Carolina, but one essential part of the solution is protecting students from bad leadership. When the local school board won’t do that, the state superintendent of education needs to be able to intervene. So ultimately, the story of “unprofessionalism” in Lee County is yet another reminder that the Legislature needs to pass either S.201 or H.3610, which would give Education Superintendent Molly Spearman — and her successors — more tools to bypass local school boards that aren’t getting the job done.