COLUMBIA — A proposal aimed at ending nepotism on South Carolina's school boards is unnecessary and could deter people from running, school board members told senators Wednesday.
Several sections of House Speaker Jay Lucas' massive, 84-page education reform bill deal with school board accountability in what he called an effort to ensure that locally elected boards put student interests ahead of their own.
A Senate panel will likely strike the bulk of those provisions.
State ethics laws already cover school board members and subjecting them to higher standards than legislators "doesn’t make any sense," Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, said.
His panel is taking a section-by-section approach in reviewing the bill. Wednesday marked its first public hearing. Hundreds of teachers filled a House hearing on the overall bill Tuesday night to vent their opposition over five hours.
Bipartisan calls for an education overhaul intensified in the wake of The Post and Courier’s "Minimally Adequate" series in November which laid out how gaping disparities have left students unprepared for college or work after high school.
Under the proposal Lucas filed last month, school board members who don't undergo mandatory training on their powers, duties and responsibilities could be fined up to $5,000. Those who continue to refuse — and do so repeatedly — could be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
The proposal also expands the governor's ability to remove a school board member in cases of fraud, nepotism, theft and contract violations. It also bars anyone from running for a school board after June 2020 if a family member is already on the board or in the district's administration.
"This seems to be a new set of standards targeted only for school boards and I ask the question of 'Why?'" said Richland District 1 School Board Chairman Jamie Devine, who notes his wife is an attorney for the district and his sister teaches there.
"School boards have plenty of tough demands already," he said. "We need good people to continue to run and serve and not run them away."
On Feb. 20, the Senate panel will take up Hembree's suggestion to remove most of the ethics provisions. Remaining sections would still require the state Board of Education to adopt a model training program and local boards to approve their own.
While Davis and school board members from other districts insisted they follow state ethics laws and recuse themselves from voting when a conflict arises, there's no denying that school boards do questionable things.
In Richland District 2 alone over the past month, the board's chairwoman was ordered to pay the state Ethics Commission $51,750 for failing to file campaign disclosure forms for years, and the board's vice-chairwoman was arrested and charged with shoving a parent.
On Tuesday night, the board rejected allowing a super-majority of the board to remove a fellow member from a leadership post. The vote came after Superintendent Baron Davis said he voluntarily paid a $100 fine for not filing an ethics disclosure form he didn't realize he needed to after taking the job in 2017, The State newspaper reported.
Hembree, a former prosecutor, said it's a problem of enforcement, not the law. Legislators need to better fund the state's tiny ethics agency so it can pursue more cases, and people need to report potential violations, he said.
"There doesn’t seem to be a lot of enforcement of things that would get me rightly fired from my job," said Steve Nuzum, a veteran high school English teacher in Columbia. "It seems like, on paper, ethics rules are there," he said, but there's no consistency among boards statewide in following them.
State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, a Republican, has advocated for school board reforms.
"It doesn’t take the whole school board. Most are fine, but you can get a few folks who get their eyes off what it’s about, and it’s more about, ‘Let me make sure cousin Sue gets the job or cousin Rob gets the contract,’ and when they start getting off target, things can go awry," she told The Post and Courier in the fall.
Former state Superintendent Jim Rex, a Democrat, agreed school board members can behave badly.
"Sometimes school boards are a big part of our problem, the way they meddle with administration and hand out favors and get involved in discipline," he said in an interview for the Minimally Adequate series.
State School Boards Association director Scott Price said Wednesday every school board has anti-nepotism and ethics policies, and school boards shouldn't be singled out from other government entities, such as city and county councils, that are required to follow state ethics laws.
"There are enforcement mechanisms, but nobody wants to pull the trigger. People can file a complaint anonymously now. By all means, they should report it," he said. "Everything's in place that needs to be in place for enforcement. It just needs to be enforced."