Lawmakers Loosening Control of Dillon Schools?

November 18, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveFor the first time since anyone can remember, Dillon County’s state legislative delegation appears willing to relinquish control of the county Board of Education.

County voters on Nov. 2 by an overwhelming margin of nearly 90 percent said they favor popular elections of the 10-member county school board. The final tally was 6,071 to 737, according to the S.C. Election Commission.

Dillon County is the state’s only county in which a county board of education is appointed by the county’s legislative delegation, and every local school board, made up of seven members, is appointed by the county board.

Only three other counties – Anderson, Clarendon and Marion – have county boards of education, according to the S.C. School Boards Association’s website. Of those three, Clarendon County is the only county in which the legislative delegation appoints the county education board, though the county board does not appoint every local board member.

The Nov. 2 referendum in Dillon County establishing a popularly elected county board was non-binding. A state bill (H. 4700) passed this year authorizing the referendum says the results “may be considered” by the county’s three-member delegation in deciding “whether or not to provide for an elected Dillon County Board of Education.”

Contacted last week by The Nerve, the bill’s sole sponsor, Rep. Jackie Hayes, who is the athletic director and Dillon High School’s longtime head football coach in Dillon School District 2, said he would support local legislation next year making the vote results permanent.

“When we go back in session (in January), the delegation will be working toward getting that implemented,” the Dillon Democrat said. “We want to do the will of the people.”

“Personally,” Hayes said later during the interview, “I think it can be dangerous, but when they voted 90 percent (in favor of popular elections), I think they’re moving in that direction.”

A lawmaker since 1999, Hayes denied having any influence over the decisions of the county education board that he helps to appoint, noting, “I’ve never called a board member and asked them to do anything. … I’ve never gotten any special perks or privileges.”

Hayes said he introduced the referendum legislation in March after constituents complained to him that “we have no input.”

As with Hayes, the county’s two other delegation members – Sens. Kent Williams, D-Marion, and Dick Elliott, D-Horry – told The Nerve last week that they would support legislation requiring the county education board to be popularly elected.

“I am promising you one thing – they will have an elected school board in Dillon County,” Williams said.

Said Elliott, “As long as we elect a school board that is a cross-section of the community, I don’t have any problem with that at all.”

But questions remain as to the makeup of a popularly elected board, whether elections would extend to the county’s three local school districts, and whether fiscal autonomy would be given to any board.

John Kirby, the superintendent of Latta-based Dillon School District 3 since 1990, told The Nerve last week that having an elected county board “could presume there would be one countywide school district.”

Based on conversations he’s had with residents, Kirby said most parents in his school district would oppose consolidation, which he fears could lead to the closing of the sole high schools in Latta and Lake View in Dillon School District 1.

“In rural America, everything revolves around the high school,” he said, adding that high schools support jobs in their communities and the local property tax base.

A popularly elected county education board, if not balanced in representation, could give too much control to the more populous Dillon-based School District 2 – where Hayes is employed – over the smaller Latta and Lake View districts, Kirby said. Dillon 2’s student enrollment is about 3,500, compared to about 1,700 in Dillon 3 and 900 in Dillon 1, according to the most recently available figures from the S.C. Department of Education.

Kirby said he believes most residents in his district would support a locally elected school board that would have the authority to set the district’s budgets and tax rates. Currently, the county board approves the local districts’ budgets, and any tax hikes requested by the county board have to be approved by the legislative delegation through local legislation, he said.

“I think if you’re going to have elected boards, then they also should bear the responsibility of the finances,” Kirby said.

Kirby earlier this year publicly criticized a plan supported by the legislative delegation and approved by the county school board that would change the way tax dollars are divided among the three local districts.

Hayes told The Nerve that he would support giving an elected county board “fiscal autonomy,” adding, “I’ll be glad to get that off me.”

Hayes said an elected county board should have equal representation from the three local districts. Any election plan likely would have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, he said.

Under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, South Carolina is one of nine mostly Southern states that have to seek “preclearance” from the Justice Department before changing voting procedures or practices. The law is aimed at preventing discrimination against racial or ethnic minority groups.

An elected Dillon County education board could decide whether to abolish the local school boards, keep them and appoint their members, or keep them with local elections, Hayes said. In neighboring Marion County, for example, the elected county education board appoints the members of the county’s three local boards.

Williams, Marion County’s deputy administrator and a former Marion County Board of Education chairman, said although the legislation authorizing the Dillon County referendum didn’t address local school board elections, “That would be my thinking – that all boards should be elected.”

Elliott said he likely would recommend holding a series of public hearings to determine whether Dillon County’s three local boards should be elected, though he noted, “Any time we can elect people to manage and operate something – that’s the American way.”

As far as giving the county education board fiscal autonomy, Elliott said, “It would be fine with me to assign the setting of the millage to the elected school board.”

Asked why the Dillon County delegation has long held onto its control of the county education board, Elliott, a senator since 1993 who previously served 10 years in the S.C. House, said, “I can’t answer that question.”

Asked the same question, Williams, a senator since 2005, replied: “I didn’t create it; I inherited it. Now we’re just trying to fix it.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.