EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced in collaboration with The Voice of Fairfield County, an Uncovered partner.
WINNSBORO — J.R. Green seethed with anger as he read an article in his local newspaper. The school district he leads was on winter break, but Green couldn’t stop fuming over the words on the page before him.
The Voice of Fairfield County reported that Green’s district had failed to meet certain state academic benchmarks. The article cited statistics to prove it.
Bristling at the critique, the superintendent fired off an email to his principals and school board. The missive, titled “False, Biased, and Misleading Reporting,” blasted the paper and accused its reporter of “marginalizing our students, staff, and system.”
“I want you to share this reporting with your staff so they understand the hostile media environment we face,” Green wrote that night in December 2018.
The fiery dispatch is emblematic of Green's approach to uncomfortable questions and criticism during his nine years leading this high-poverty Midlands district of roughly 2,000 students.
In public forums, he has sidestepped questions about his taxpayer-funded salary and other points of contention. For years, he has rebuffed attempts to reveal how he spends thousands of dollars in public money. Most recently, when asked about a potential conflict of interest involving a former district employee from whom Green rents his personal home, Green refused to discuss details.
It’s one striking example of how easily government officials in South Carolina can shield information from the public. In its investigative series Uncovered, The Post and Courier is partnering with local newspapers to help shine a light on questionable conduct, and hold the powerful to account in areas with few watchdogs.
Across South Carolina, particularly in rural communities that have become news deserts, officials are less likely to be pressed on their decisions, and more prone to set the public agenda themselves.
In this latest installment, a Post and Courier joint investigation with The Voice pierced the veil that shrouds Fairfield schools, one of South Carolina’s smaller, but relatively well-funded, school districts.
Largely thanks to tax revenue from a local nuclear power plant, Fairfield schools collect more money per student than any other district in the state.
Year after year, top officials use a hefty chunk of the money for travel to pricey conferences at tourist resorts across South Carolina and the country, the newspapers found.
Between 2017 and 2020, Green’s office and Fairfield’s seven board members charged taxpayers for trips just about every month during the school calendar. That included dozens of trips to conferences at waterfront resorts in Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head.
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The annual bill for those and other trips? Nearly $50,000 — enough money to cover the salary of an additional classroom instructor.
With a $192,000 salary and his own $42,000 discretionary account, Green also charges the public for his own travel and trips he arranges for two student groups he founded.
At the same time, the board has extended Green fat bonuses, contingent upon Green receiving passing grades in thin annual evaluations that lack measurable goals.
The one-page forms are filled out anonymously by board members and leave little room for comments or discussion — about as rigorous as a first grader’s report card.
That’s contributed to a vacuum of accountability in Fairfield, a community that does not have a daily newspaper.
The Voice publishes weekly, holding the district to account when student performance dips, or when top officials attempt to obscure their public spending. Green views some of that reporting as an attack on the district.
In response, he has warned district employees against speaking to The Voice. Then, he took the matter a step further: He started the district’s own publication.
The Fairfield Post is distributed weekly around the county, often filled with campaign advertisements or columns penned by politicians.
“The Post is an opportunity to really lift up the good things that are happening,” Green said.
Taxpayers underwrite the costs, to the tune of $27,000 a year.
Green, whom the S.C. Association of School Administrators named the 2021 S.C. Superintendent of the Year, did agree to speak with The Post and Courier. He then called for a lengthy discussion of the newspaper’s collaboration with The Voice at a May 11 school board meeting.
When reporters arrived, he asked them to leave, citing the district’s social distancing rules in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, a livestream broadcast Green’s remarks to the board — a defiant rant that stretched nearly 40 minutes. He fiercely defended the district’s spending of taxpayer money. He roundly criticized the state’s education statistics, which he described as an incomplete picture of the district’s progress with students.
Green also accused a reporter of questioning him because he is Black, describing this and other reporting by The Post and Courier as a suspicious effort to target people of color.
In other conversations with a reporter, Green stressed one point above all: He despises and distrusts The Voice. When asked to cite examples of the newspaper’s reporting, Green repeatedly pointed to what he insists was a demeaning tweet sent by a Voice freelancer in 2019. Otherwise, he only spoke generally about coverage he described as negative.
“I have confessed in (church) that there is animosity in my heart,” he said about the newspaper and its publisher. “I have to pray that the Lord removes it.”
‘Change the culture’
Green didn’t always quarrel with the local newspaper.
“Community Turns Out to Meet New Superintendent,” read the headline in The Voice, above a photo of Green smiling for a photographer when the district hired him in 2012.
Green carries three degrees, as well as a doctorate in education leadership from the University of South Carolina. As a principal and assistant superintendent in Chesterfield County, he helped a high school bring up its grades on its state report card, and hit its year-over-year targets for improving student performance.
Meanwhile, Fairfield schools were rocked by extreme turnover in the district’s top position. Before Green arrived, Fairfield cycled through 12 superintendents in 20 years amid a period of dysfunction among the board. Local residents called the district South Carolina’s “graveyard for superintendents.”
The surrounding community also faced disruptions. Once-bustling Winnsboro, the county seat, hosted the headquarters of Uniroyal Tire Company. But the town lost businesses, jobs and eventually its hospital after the construction of Interstate 77 bypassed the community in the 1970s. The surrounding countryside remains largely rural, dotted with rolling pastures and horse and cattle farms.
Fairfield’s teachers and administrators educate a student body where nearly 90 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Green vowed to “change the culture” in an area that needed help. He stressed teamwork and an open relationship with the community. He has maintained a visible presence, regularly making appearances in front of television cameras for local news programs.
But eventually, some of those promises were tested as Green’s decision-making came under tighter scrutiny.
First, board members questioned why more than two dozen out-of-state and overnight trips were planned for student groups in 2015, including travel to New York City, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. Board members questioned how much those trips would cost taxpayers. Green said he didn’t know. The board authorized the trips anyway.
Some board members also pressed Green on his use of the superintendent’s fund, roughly $42,000 in taxpayer money. Green has broad discretion to spend the money each year as he chooses.
While deliberating the district’s budget in 2017, then-board member Annie McDaniel asked why the board couldn’t get more details on his discretionary spending.
Green said he’d only share the information if the board voted to ask for it. Another board member at the time, Paula Hartman, pressed further.
“Does that mean that you won’t give us that information?” Hartman asked.
“That means if the board directs me to provide it, I will,” Green said.
Beth Reid, then the board’s chair, suggested Hartman submit an inquiry under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
“If a person from the audience asked for that information, could they get it?” Hartman asked.
“Yes,” Reid answered.
“Then why can’t I?” Hartman asked.
A lack of access
The state’s open records law is supposed to allow for the free flow of public information, so any media outlet or citizen can easily see how their government is operating and spending the public’s money.
But the FOIA law is riddled with loopholes that officials can exploit to shield unsavory information from public view.
After a 2017 amendment to the law, government agencies — for the first time — were allowed to charge residents and news outlets for costs that officials associate with retrieving or redacting documents.
But with vague guidelines, the amounts calculated by the government can far surpass what the average citizen can afford — hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.
At the same time, officials may freely ignore direct questions from citizens. Instead, they can insist that information only be released if requested under FOIA. That way, they keep public information in the dark for weeks, or even months.
The flaws in the system present major roadblocks for cash-strapped local newspapers around the state, including The Voice of Fairfield County.
After lashing out at the newspaper’s coverage of the district’s student performance in 2018, Green has not agreed to an interview with the newspaper in more than two years, and has blocked other attempts to gain information.
The end result is dwindling accountability, and an environment that limits the local newspaper’s ability to carry out its First Amendment duties, said Lynn Teague, vice president of the South Carolina League of Women Voters.
“It sounds totally unacceptable,” Teague said. “If I were a taxpayer in Fairfield, I would find it unacceptable.”
Green said The Voice is at fault for its poor relationship with him. He pointed to a 2019 incident as proof.
After the state education department named a Fairfield instructor S.C. Teacher of the Year, a tweet from a Voice freelancer noted that Green sits on the same panel that selects the award.
Green took the remark as a slight that suggested the Fairfield teacher did not earn her recognition. “Simply despicable!!” he tweeted at the time.
The Voice’s publisher responded, “FCSD is rightfully proud of her accomplishment, as is all of Fairfield County.”
But Green told his employees that he does not trust The Voice or its publisher — and that they should not either.
“How they should interpret that statement, I’ve left that up for them,” Green said.
A steep fee
In 2019, The Voice requested access to records documenting two years of Green’s discretionary spending — an issue that had continued to divide members of the board.
After waiting 10 business days to respond, the maximum allowed under state law, Green insisted the information would cost $338. The Voice couldn’t afford to pay.
State law allows governments to waive fees and release public information for free, so The Voice asked Green to reconsider.
He waited another two weeks, then refused. He also rejected the newspaper’s requests to inspect the records in person, something reporters often do to avoid the costs of copying documents.
Asked about the matter by The Post and Courier, Green said he’s merely doing what the law allows him to do.
The Voice has a team of freelancers and one full-time editor and publisher, who declines a salary. The publisher also supplements a roughly $150,000 annual budget by occasionally paying for rent and other expenses out of her own pocket.
Ultimately, The Voice dropped its request.
The newspaper agreed to partner with The Post and Courier on this article, in part, in an effort to obtain Green’s spending records — originally sought nearly two years ago.
When The Post and Courier sent its own request, for travel expenses from 2017-20, Green agreed to turn them over without a charge.
The records show a steady drip of travel expenses for Green and his assistant. There’s also a bulk of purchases related to two student mentoring groups Green founded — the Griffin Bow Tie Club, for the district’s teenage boys, and the Elite Ladies for middle- and high-school girls.
Green said he almost always accompanies the students on out-of-state trips. In the nearly 500 pages of documents from Green’s account that the newspaper reviewed, not every expense had an obvious public benefit.
That included the roughly $1,600 the district paid in 2019 and 2020 to fly dance instructors to South Carolina from Louisiana and Mississippi. Green told The Post and Courier the instructors taught at an Elite Ladies summer dance camp, and that the costs of their travel were covered by fundraising and fees from the camp.
It also included a Bow Tie Club trip, led by Green, to Louisville, Ky., in 2019. Green did not ask the board to approve the trip in advance, as is required. When later asked about the trip’s expenses at a board meeting, Green said he couldn’t recall details.
The actual cost to taxpayers? More than $10,100. That included lodging at the downtown Marriott; a $3,850 tour bus for students; and more than $700 in charges at the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Muhammad Ali Center and the world-famous Churchill Downs horse racing track, home of the Kentucky Derby. Green told The Post and Courier those expenses only covered costs of admission.
Hartman, one of the board members, unsuccessfully sought details about that trip. Green also rebuffed her attempts to learn how much he earns each year.
“We never got any information we wanted,” Hartman said.
At a 2018 board meeting, Hartman pressed for details of Green’s compensation. By that point, his salary had steadily increased over six years. His board-approved contract also entitled him to tens of thousands of dollars in annual contributions to his retirement account.
But when Hartman asked him how much money he made, Green said he didn’t know.
Now, Green’s salary has ballooned to more than $192,000. No superintendent of such a small district in South Carolina makes more, according to the most recent data from the state. Including his retirement benefits, his overall taxpayer-funded compensation is above $225,000.
Green told The Post and Courier he has agreed to freeze his benefits package at its current level.
“That’s what my spirit led me to do,” he said.
Other records obtained by The Post and Courier show even more expenses — these charged by Fairfield’s seven board members for their travel.
In just over three years, board members charged taxpayers more than $123,000 in expenses for travel to conferences, including $52,900 in out-of-state travel.
It also included nearly 70 trips to waterfront resorts in Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head. During school years, one or more school board members attended a conference just about every month, the records show.
The board’s travel between 2017-19 averaged $41,200 a year. By comparison, in the last full fiscal year before the pandemic, the board of Greenville schools spent less than $37,000 on travel. That board oversees the largest district in South Carolina. And it has 12 members, five more than Fairfield.
Fairfield board members disclosed their trips in reports provided during regular meetings. But they had little to add to inquiries from The Post and Courier. Most did not respond to phone messages and emailed questions about their travel.
The board’s chair, Henry Miller, has charged the most in recent years — more than $31,500, records show. He did not return voicemails, but defended the travel in a written response.
“Investing in training and professional development is a vital component to becoming a more effective school board member,” he said.
Another sitting board member, Sylvia Harrison, spent more than $27,000, records show. She also briefly defended her travel. But after learning the newspaper was partnering with The Voice, Harrison said she wasn’t interested in a reporter’s questions.
“This is what you all do,” Harrison said. “It didn’t work for (The Voice) and it’s not going to work for you.”
Similarly, the district’s leaders had little to say about another revelation uncovered by The Post and Courier: that Green for years rented his personal residence from one of his district employees.
The 1-acre, three-bedroom property — with an iron fence, brick patio and in-ground pool — sits on a tree-lined corner of Charming Circle in Winnsboro. Green said he and his family moved into the property soon after he took the district’s top job.
The owner is Randy Small, who worked as a district bookkeeper. He retired during the 2018-19 school year.
For ethicists, the arrangement raises red flags. State law prohibits public officials from using their position to create a financial benefit for themselves. That means Green’s monthly rent amount must represent a fair value for the area’s market, said Greg Adams, a professor emeritus with the University of South Carolina School of Law.
The only way for Green to publicly assure the arrangement is legal, Adams said, is to share with a reporter a copy of any written agreement.
“This is a situation that could be entirely innocent, in the sense there’s no abuse of power because the transaction is at a fair market rate,” Adams said. “Or it could be an abuse of power that rises to the level of being criminal. You can’t tell the difference without the lease.”
Green declined to discuss the arrangement.
“I think that is absolutely intrusive,” he said.
When pressed, Green said “I pay over $1,000” in monthly rent, but refused to share a copy of the lease.
Miller, the board chair, stood behind Green.
“Dr. Green is not obligated to provide you with any documents relating to his rental agreement with Mr. Smalls (sic),” Miller said.
Small returned a reporter’s phone call but cut the conversation short. Asked about the arrangement, Small said, “Now is not a good time. Let me call you back.”
He never did.
Green is supposed to receive more scrutiny during his annual evaluations from the board. But year after year he glides through the process, often without being pressed publicly on any aspect of his performance.
The board conducts its year-end discussions with Green behind closed doors. Then, board members submit one-page rubrics with benchmarks as vague as “community engagement.” The evaluations do not point to any measurable goals.
Board members do not have to sign their names, nor are they required to offer specific comments on how well the superintendent stacked up. Some leave no comments at all.
By comparison, Fairfield’s neighbor in Richland County School District Two, board members there evaluate their superintendent with six-page forms using far more detailed metrics.
McDaniel, who sat on the school board from 2000-18, said Fairfield used to use a similar process. But some time during Green’s tenure the board pushed for a change.
“We went to a one-pager,” McDaniel said.
“I wasn’t a fan of it, even though I thought that Dr. Green was doing some good things in the district,” she added.
Meanwhile, though the state has adjusted its metrics, Fairfield schools have about the same overall average rating as when Green took the helm eight years ago.
In an interview, Green defended the district’s work with students and stressed that top officials continue to make changes. Most recently, after poor ratings in 2019, Green replaced the middle school principal.
“I’m never satisfied,” he said. “We recognize that we still have progress to be made.”
Ultimately, it was the low ratings for Fairfield Middle School, and other middling district metrics, that were the subject of The Voice article in 2018 that set Green off.
He blasted the publication in his email to principals and other staff. Two months later, he took the matter a step further: He started Fairfield school district’s own newspaper, The Fairfield Post.
The newspaper features bylines from students. But with articles on community events and local elections, its coverage stretches well beyond the walls of Fairfield schools.
As Green puts it, “Anyone can submit a story.”
Local politicians regularly oblige. An early issue included a half-page editorial on education policy, written by state Sen. Mike Fanning. Another edition contained an unsigned feature on Green, after he received a special recognition from USC.
Throughout 2020, inside pages were filled with campaign advertisements and other content submitted by McDaniel, Winnsboro Mayor John McMeekin and Fairfield school board candidates.
Sen. Greg Hembree, the state senate education chair, told The Post and Courier that Green has waded into murky ethical territory, where the public underwrites a news publication with little ability to keep it from becoming a “propaganda arm” of the district.
Green told The Post and Courier he has no editorial control over the newspaper. He only reads and encourages the publication. Politicians pay for their advertising space, Green said.
“Some publications — the only things they cover are things that are negative,” Green said.
Not everyone is convinced The Fairfield Post a good idea.
Teague, with the League of Women Voters, said she’s not sure the arrangement is legal.
“The paper is a public resource, and it is being used for campaign purposes,” she said.
Green insists he did not start The Post to compete with The Voice.
“I’m not stopping them from writing anything,” he said. “But it doesn’t have to be the only mechanism for sharing information in this community.”
Harrison, the board member, also defended The Post while railing against coverage in The Voice. At the May 11 board meeting, she said she’s interested in having The Post delivered to the homes of Fairfield residents.
She told The Post and Courier, “If it’s not positive, I don’t read it.”
After hanging up on a reporter, Harrison took to Facebook that evening to alert her followers about what she described as the latest example of biased news reporting. She described The Voice and its publisher as bitter, insisting she had no intention of reading this article.
Besides, she added, “We have our own newspaper.”