County legislative delegation tightens grip on Clarendon 2 school board

August 23, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

For many years, S.C. lawmakers have exerted considerable control over local matters through county legislative delegations.

Take the Clarendon County legislative delegation, for example.

In April, Democratic Sen. Kevin Johnson of Manning introduced a bill to give the three-member delegation, of which he is the chairman, direct control over appointing the nine-member Clarendon 2 school board by eliminating the county education board.

The delegation historically had appointed the seven-member county education board, which selected the Manning-based Clarendon 2 board. Johnson served on the local board in the 1990s.

The Nerve in April reported about the bill, pointing out that Johnson’s daughter is the Clarendon 2 board chairwoman, while his wife and another daughter work for the school district.

After the Legislature passed the bill, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed it, contending in his May 1 written veto message that legislation such as Johnson’s “should take care to avoid unnecessary legislative entanglement in the affairs of local schools.”

The House and Senate overrode the veto, with Johnson and Democratic Rep. Robert Ridgeway, another member of the Clarendon County delegation, siding with the majority. Democratic Rep. Cezar McKnight of Williamsburg County, the third delegation member whose district includes part of Clarendon County, was absent for that vote, legislative records show.

After getting direct appointment control, the delegation selected three candidates out of 10 applicants for seats on the Clarendon 2 board. One of the appointees, Falicia Miller, is the practice administrator at the Manning office of HopeHealth, a health care provider where Johnson’s daughter, Kimberly Johnson, the Clarendon 2 board chairwoman, works as its “legislative affairs” director, according to the organization’s website.

A HopeHealth receptionist told The Nerve this week that Kimberly Johnson works out of the Manning office, though in an interview Thursday, Sen. Johnson said his daughter, who he noted has been employed at HopeHealth for several months, is based in the Florence office, and that she doesn’t report to Miller.

HopeHealth has 12 locations in Clarendon, Florence, Aiken and Williamsburg counties, according to its website.

Johnson denied having any conflicts of interest in approving Miller’s appointment to the Clarendon 2 board. State ethics law bans public officials from using their positions to “obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”

“Obviously, we thought she was very qualified to serve on the board, or we wouldn’t have appointed her,” Johnson said about Miller, noting she has a doctoral degree in nursing and was “very active” in the district before her appointment. “We don’t want to disqualify anybody from serving on the board who’s interested just because they know people – like they know the delegation or may be related.”

Johnson noted that Pete Surette, one of the three board members appointed by the delegation, has a daughter who works for the school district.

“It’s hard for us being in a small area to find somebody who has no relationship,” he said.

Johnson, who was a House member from 2011-12 and the Manning mayor from 2000-11, previously said he didn’t influence the appointment of his daughter, Kimberly, to the Clarendon 2 board, noting the county school board initially rejected her for the seat. He also said then he was not involved in the district’s hiring of his wife, Gloria, an administrative assistant, and their daughter, Kyndra, a licensed master social worker.

Unlike Sen. Johnson, Rep. Ridgeway, a doctor who works at the Manning HopeHealth office, recused himself from Miller’s appointment, leaving the decision to Johnson and Rep. McKnight, Johnson said Thursday.

Asked about the difference between that situation and the one involving his daughter, Johnson replied: “Kim doesn’t answer to Falicia (Miller) at all; she doesn’t report to her at all. If she had, that would have probably been a conflict.”

Ridgeway, Miller and Kimberly Johnson didn’t respond to written or phone messages this week from The Nerve seeking comment.

Asked about his daughter’s duties as HopeHealth’s “legislative affairs” director, Johnson explained that because the organization receives federal funding to provide low-cost health services, his daughter meets with “all of our (U.S.) representatives and senators to ask if they support the funding.”

He added she also meets with state lawmakers on “issues that involve heath care” and “does a lot of outreach stuff.”

Under the new law sponsored by Johnson, the county legislative delegation appoints four of the nine members of the Summerton-based Clarendon 1 school board, taking that authority away from the county school board, with the other five local board members popularly elected. All seven members of the Turbeville-based Clarendon 3 school board are popularly elected.

Before the law, Clarendon, Dillon and Anderson counties were the only counties with county school boards in addition to local school boards, according to the South Carolina School Boards Association.

Johnson said the Clarendon 1 and 3 districts support consolidation with one popularly elected school board, though he added those districts don’t “want to have District 2 involved with that.”

Asked why he didn’t push to have the Clarendon 2 board popularly elected instead of being appointed by the delegation, Johnson replied, “The ultimate goal is to have one school district in Clarendon County with one elected school board.”

Johnson acknowledged that among the three members of the county legislative delegation, his vote counts the most – 50% of the total – under a weighted-vote system. But he said although he “could pull rank,” his group seeks “consensus” on delegation matters.

“We appoint as a delegation a lot of positions in Clarendon County,” Johnson said. “I look at who is the best qualified, because anybody we appoint to any position, it’s a reflection on us.”

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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