Legislative delegations again exert control over local schools

February 10, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

In another power move by county legislative delegations, a Spartanburg County lawmaker has proposed legislation that would establish base pay for members of a local school board.

It’s not the first time in recent years that a county delegation, made up House and Senate members representing that county, has inserted itself into local school board matters.

And delegations have exerted their control in other ways.

Last week, state Rep. Rosalyn Henderson-Myers, D-Spartanburg, introduced a bill that would authorize the Spartanburg County District 7 school board to pay eight board members each a maximum $600 monthly stipend, with the board chairperson receiving a maximum $700 monthly stipend.

The pay wouldn’t take effect until after the “next regularly scheduled election for board members,” and that “attendance at a duly constituted meeting of the board” is required for members to receive the monthly stipend, under the bill.

If the board meets every month, eight members each would annually receive a total of $7,200, while the chairman would make $8,400.

Spartanburg County District 7 is one of 30 out of 79 school districts statewide that don’t pay board members, according to the South Carolina School Boards Association (SCSBA). Its website notes that board pay doesn’t include “money budgeted by districts for board development, travel and other related expenses.”

Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, District 7 superintendent Jeff Stevens said while school board members in his district aren’t paid for attending regular monthly meetings, they can receive expense reimbursement for travel to board-approved conferences, adding in his written response that “there’s been basically no travel” over the past year.

Henderson-Myers did not return a phone message Monday from The Nerve seeking comment on her bill, which was referred to the eight-member, county delegation in the House. There are five county delegation members in the Senate.

Local bills have to be passed by both chambers, though they are primarily handled through the respective county delegations. Lawmakers typically override any vetoes of those bills by the governor.

There is no state law that specifically gives county delegations the authority to set school board pay in their respective counties, SCSBA executive director Scott Price told The Nerve when contacted Tuesday.

But Price, an attorney, also cited a landmark school-funding ruling in 2014 by the S.C. Supreme Court, which noted that the court “defers to the General Assembly when determining the constitutionality of a local law and will not declare that law unconstitutional unless it is unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt or there has been a clear abuse of legislative discretion.”

Until the mid-1970s, county legislative delegations generally governed counties, 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’ influence over local school districts – or other local matters.

In 2018, the Charleston County Senate delegation sponsored a local bill, which became law after legislators overrode Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto, to authorize the county school board to pay eight board members each a maximum $800 per month, with the board chairman receiving a maximum $900 monthly.

That equated to $9,600 annually for each of the eight members and $10,800 yearly for the chairman. The school board, which had been receiving $25-per-meeting stipends, approved the maximum monthly amounts last October, according to a story in the (Charleston) Post and Courier newspaper.

School board pay varies statewide, ranging from $25 per meeting in Saluda and Union counties to $13,818 and $19,159 annually for the Greenville County and Horry County board chairman, respectively, according to information from the SCSBA and local districts.

Online SCSBA records don’t specify which legislative delegations passed local laws setting school board pay, though association spokeswoman Debbie Elmore in an email response this week told The Nerve she didn’t believe it was a “frequent” practice.

Besides board pay, county legislative delegations can control local school boards in other ways. The Nerve, for example, in 2019 reported that Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon, authored a bill – enacted over McMaster’s objections – that gave the Clarendon County delegation direct control over appointing the nine-member Clarendon 2 school board, and also the authority to select four of the nine members of the Clarendon 1 school board.

Lawmakers last year quickly passed a bill sponsored by Johnson, the delegation chairman and a former Clarendon 2 board member and mayor of Manning, giving the three-member county delegation the power to appoint an interim, seven-member school board as part of the consolidation of county districts 1 and 3.

Last month, Johnson introduced another bill – which passed the full Senate in one week – that would amend the 2020 law, increasing the size of the interim school board to nine members while keeping the delegation’s control over those appointments.

The county delegation in the House, which includes Johnson’s daughter, newly elected Rep. Kimberly Johnson, D-Clarendon, who is a former Clarendon 2 school board chairwoman, approved the bill last week.

The Clarendon County delegation isn’t alone in exerting control over local school districts. The Nerve, for example, in 2013 revealed Democratic Rep. Jackie Hayes’ appointment power over the Dillon County Board of Education, which now selects all members of the Dillon 4 school board.

And county delegations exercise control over other local matters. Delegations, for example, appoint most County Transportation Committees (CTCs) statewide, which determine what local road projects to fund with part of the state gasoline tax.

In 2019, The Nerve revealed how one senator in 12 counties can control the appointment of that county’s magistrates.

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.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

 

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