Unlock USDOT info on S.C. State

South Carolina State University. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

The S.C. State University interim board recently approved $19.1 million in cuts to balance the school’s budget. It is a bold, if painful, first step toward paying off the school’s onerous debts, restoring its full academic accreditation and curbing the decline in enrollment.

But there’s another thing that should be on the board’s to-do list: Obtain information from an audit completed in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

That might sound like an easy thing to do, but school administrators and The Post and Courier have been thwarted in multiple attempts to do so.

The interim board of trustees, selected by legislators and the governor after the previous board was dismissed, could be more successful.

Five of the six trustees voted in favor of the budget, which will mean up to 20 faculty and 14 staff jobs will be eliminated. Remaining employees face up to 12 furlough days. And the salaries of professors who are working in retirement will be cut by 10 percent.

Board chairman Charles Way, who is also chairman of the Beach Company, and his fellow board members are experienced in business and education administration. They are accustomed to making tough decisions, and this was no exception. But the best decisions are made when all pertinent information is on the table. And in this case, the U.S. DOT audit could provide some of that information.

The audit was done at the request of then SCSU President George Cooper after a separate audit by the S.C. Legislative Audit Council showed significant management problems with the planned James E. Clyburn Transportation Center.

Specifically, Mr. Cooper asked the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration to conduct an audit of $10 million designated for the university’s planned transportation institute.

Efforts to build the program and structures to support it sputtered and stopped, even though the state’s only historically black public college had already received several large grants for it.

At the request of The Post and Courier, under the Freedom of Information Act, the agency released the DOT report but redacted all of the financial information, stating that such records were “deliberative and predecisional.”

The newspaper appealed the decision and was told its release was imminent, but federal officials later rejected the appeal.

One of the first things SCSU president Thomas Elzey did when he assumed the job in July of 2013 was to try to acquire the audit. He, too, was unsuccessful. Mr. Elzey was fired in May, less than two years after he was hired.

Getting a full copy of the audit is hardly an unreasonable request, and it might well be relevant to turning things around at S.C. State. After all, balancing the budget is only a start. Now S.C. State needs to institute best management practices and boost enrollment.

A 2012 audit of $391,000 in grants awarded by the S.C. DOT found financial irregularities, and concluded that S.C. State should be designated a “high risk grantee.”

Clearing the air on the transit center could help erase that designation.

Aside from that program, the turnover rate among school leaders has been extraordinary, and a former board chairman was sentenced to five years in prison for accepting kickbacks.

In one bit of good news, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits institutions, agreed to keep SCSU on probation. It could have rescinded accreditation altogether. The college has been on probation because of its massive financial woes.

It will take tremendous work in addition to significant sacrifices called for in the new budget to make S.C. State University functional. It will also take honesty and transparency. Getting the U.S. DOT audit is a good place to start.