Standing up for S.C. State

Rep. Joe Neal (center) vowed to defeat attempts to shut down S.C. State University during a rally Monday at the Statehouse in support of the historically black college. Neal, Reps. Lonnie Hosey (left) and Bill Clyburn (right) are members of a House Ways and Means committee that will consider the proposal on Tuesday.

COLUMBIA — Hundreds of South Carolina State University alumni and supporters rallied Monday at the Statehouse, where they heard lawmakers and others vow to fight a plan to shut down the cash-strapped school for up to two years.

“We need you to show your support,” Rep. Joe Neal told the crowd gathered outside the capitol on a chilly afternoon. “We need you to express your opinion and presence as forcefully as you can. We need to support these schools financially so that they don’t have to depend on the Legislature that doesn’t want to fund them.”

The Hopkins Democrat said he opposed the no-confidence vote the Black Legislative Caucus took last week on university President Thomas Elzey.

The rally, organized by the state NAACP chapter, is the second show of support for the beleaguered school since two House panels endorsed plans to close the state’s only public historically black college for at least three semesters to deal with an estimated $70 million in debt.

“I just think that it needs to die,” said Neal of the proposal, which could be voted on Tuesday by the House Ways and Means Committee. “I don’t think it’s useful at this point to have a message out there that the school is going to close.”

The Rev. Joe Darby, first vice president of the Charleston NAACP, called for defeating an “arrogant, ignorant, ill-advised, inflammatory and outrageous” proposal, and voting out lawmakers who proposed and backed it.

“We have to send some mean-spirited, self-serving elected officials home in 2016,” Darby said. “Because I don’t care where you live, no legislator seat is a safe seat if people who stand up for unity and progress get out and vote.”

The plan to close S.C. State was sprung last week in a committee headed by Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, in response to repeated requests for millions of dollars in loans and bailouts as Elzey and the S.C. State Board of Trustees were hit with steep declines in enrollment at the roughly 3,000-student Orangeburg campus.

Merrill and other lawmakers have criticized Elzey and the trustees for being unwilling to make the needed cuts to keep the school from drowning in red ink, while continually coming back to the Legislature seeking more money.

But Darby said lawmakers created that situation by failing to fully fund S.C. State. For years, he said, the state has given the university just enough to get by.

On Friday, a group of former and current S.C. State students sued the state, claiming South Carolina has caused the institution’s financial problems by funding competing programs at traditionally white schools, creating a de facto segregated university system.

“Unable to get a sufficient number of students, including nonblack students, S.C. State was unable to meet its financial needs, according to the lawsuit. The white student population at S.C. State is less than 3 percent,” the lawsuit says.

The trustees’ finance committee met Monday to consider cost-cutting measures that could include unpaid leave for employees. On Thursday, state senators voted 40-0 to allow S.C. State to furlough employees for up to 20 days.

Elzey and the trustees also are in danger of losing their positions. Reps. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, and Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, introduced a resolution last week that would fire the president and trustees and place the state Budget and Control Board in control of the university.

The Times and Democrat contributed to this story. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.