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Legislative delegations still meddling in local school matters

By RICK BRUNDRETT

County legislative delegations are again asserting their power over local school districts.

The Legislature so far this session has passed at least five school-related bills introduced by House or Senate members representing counties in which the affected school districts are located.

Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed all five bills – three of them on Monday – though lawmakers overrode the first two vetoes.

Until the mid-1970s, legislative delegations generally governed the counties they represented, including approving county budgets. The 1975 Home Rule Act was supposed to give counties more control over their own affairs, though it didn’t end lawmakers’ control over local school districts and certain other areas.

The Nerve has pointed out in recent years that county delegations still have broad powers, including making appointments to some school boards and most county transportation committees, which determine local road projects to fund with part of the state gasoline tax.

County delegations also play a key role in the election of master-in-equity judges, while Senate delegations control the selection process of magistrates, as The Nerve has revealed.

The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, last year revealed that South Carolina is one of only several states where legislative delegations exert considerable control over appointments to various government boards or commissions, or over other local government matters.

Normally, delegation-sponsored bills are passed by the S.C. Legislature with little controversy or debate. But that didn’t happen with a House bill, introduced on Jan. 13, which would require partisan elections starting in 2024 for Lancaster County School Board members. Currently, in two of the state’s 77 school districts – Horry and Lee counties – board candidates run in partisan elections, according to the South Carolina School Boards Association (SCSBA).

The main sponsor of the Lancaster County bill was Rep. Sandy McGarry, R-Lancaster, who did not respond to written and phone messages this week from The Nerve seeking comment. McGarry defeated incumbent Democratic Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell in the November 2020 election, though The State newspaper last December reported that McGarry didn’t plan to seek re-election this year after her district was redrawn following the 2020 U.S. Census.

The bill was referred to the four-member Lancaster County House delegation, which approved it, legislative records show. The full House initially rejected the bill by a 49-47 vote on Feb. 10, though in an unusual legislative move, the vote was reconsidered the following week, with the House collectively reversing course and approving it by a final 59-44 vote.

“In general, everybody always says, ‘Politics don’t belong in public education,’ and we not only say that, we believe that,” Scott Price, SCSBA’s executive director, told The Nerve when contacted last week about the bill. “We’ve had a longstanding position that favors nonpartisan, publicly elected school boards.”

Neither Price nor Norrell, who also was contacted last week by The Nerve, said they knew why McGarry introduced the bill. Norrell, who, like Price, is an attorney, said she believed the bill would be “ripe for a legal challenge if there isn’t a veto,” contending the local legislation would result in “treating different (school) districts differently.”

Price last week sent a letter, a copy of which was provided to The Nerve, to McMaster requesting that he veto the bill, contending, among other things, that partisan elections of school boards could “narrow the pool of potential talent in some communities.”

“School board members are elected and entrusted with deciding what is in the best interest of students in their community – not based on a political party platform,” Price wrote.

In his veto letter to House Speaker Jay Lucas, McMaster wrote that he was “compelled to reiterate my longstanding concerns regarding the General Assembly’s regular resort to local or special legislation, which has produced a patchwork of authorities governing South Carolina’s schools and school districts.”

“This very issue illustrates the problems associated with governing via piecemeal, and often inconsistent, local legislation,” the Republican governor said.

Lucas, a Republican who lives in Darlington County but whose district includes part of Lancaster County, voted in favor of the bill. He unexpectedly announced Tuesday that he would not run for reelection this year, ending a 24-year legislative career.

Lucas did not return a written message Monday from The Nerve seeking comment on the bill. Rep. Heather Crawford, R-Horry, also didn’t reply to a written message.

Besides the Lancaster County legislation, McMaster on Monday also vetoed two other school-related bills:

*A bill sponsored by Sen. Vernon Stephens, D-Orangeburg, whose district includes part of Dorchester County, would lift a cap on Dorchester County School District 4 cash reserves for this fiscal year. In his veto message, McMaster said a special law affecting only Dorchester County was unnecessary, noting that because of the “significant federal funds currently available to school districts, whatever the concern is that prompted this bill, one can fairly presume that other school districts are facing the same or similar issue.”

*A bill co-sponsored by Sens. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, whose districts include parts of Hampton County, would require that state or federal funds allocated to Hampton County school districts 1 or 2, or the consolidated county school district, be deposited into an account with the consolidated district. McMaster in his veto message said although he approved a 2020 law to consolidate the districts, lawmakers have “not demonstrated that this special legislation is necessary.”

In addition, McMaster last month vetoed a bill sponsored by Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion, that would move the date for this year’s Marion County Board of Education elections from the second Tuesday in April to the second Tuesday in May; and another bill co-sponsored by the three-member Union County Senate delegation – Sens. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee; Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg; and Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, whose districts include parts of Union County – that would require the Union County School District to close on Memorial Day and recognize it as a legal holiday.

In both cases, McMaster in his veto messages said, besides giving specific reasons for objecting to the bills, that “like several of my predecessors, I have consistently vetoed unconstitutional local or special legislation.” Lawmakers, though, easily overrode both vetoes – a typical response when dealing with delegation bills.

It wasn’t immediately clear when the Legislature will take up McMaster’s latest vetoes.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-3948273 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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