S.C. State trustees to discuss president’s future as bill replacing them advances

The S.C. State Board of Trustees meet earlier this month to address the university’s financial crisis that has brought calls for ousting them and the school’s presdient, Thomas Elzey.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina State University trustees plan to discuss embattled President Thomas Elzey’s employment status on Thursday, even as a bill that would replace them continues its fast march through the Senate.

Attorney Ken Childs declined Wednesday to say if the Board of Trustees plans to fire Elzey. On Monday, the trustees voted to place him on paid administrative leave.

Meanwhile, a bill introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, that would fire the trustees was sent to the full Senate after passing the Senate Education Committee 10-1.

The lone dissenter, Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, attempted to delay it with a procedural move by placing what is known as a minority report on the bill. For the bill to come up for a vote, Malloy would either have to remove his objection with the assent of the rest of the Senate, or senators could override his objection on a two-thirds vote, allowing it to come up for discussion and a vote.

The bill would replace the trustees of the Orangeburg school, the state’s only public historically black university, with a five-member board appointed by lawmakers and Gov. Nikki Haley. New trustees would serve through 2018 and have the authority to fire Elzey and hire a replacement.

The House also is considering a proposal that would fire Elzey, but would replace the board with members of the State Fiscal Accountability Authority.

Malloy, though, said he was concerned “lawsuits are going to fly.”

“We’ve got people who were just put on the board just last year,” Malloy said after the hearing. “We’re not giving those individuals a chance.”

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, said he would be in favor of the bill, if it saves the university. But Peeler also stressed it’s time for the Legislature to have an “uncomfortable conversation” on how to cut staff at the university because of declining enrollment.

“I want to keep the school open if at all possible,” Peeler said. “But if it’s beyond help, it’s beyond help.”

Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins, one of the sponsors of the bill, said the changes could ultimately, determine if the school has a future.

“Time is of the essence,” Jackson said. “Every week that we drag this on is another week that the school is in limbo.”

The school’s continuing financial problems, caused in part by enrollment falling below 3,000 students, has left it an estimated $70 million in debt and in need of loans and bailouts that already total $18 million.

Elzey, who earns more than $300,000 a year, has taken the brunt of the blame, but lawmakers have also criticized trustees for being unwilling to cut programs, faculty and staff.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.