S.C. Top Court Upholds Legislative Delegation’s Power Over School District

July 18, 2014

Investigative Reports

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School BusIf you think that local school districts in South Carolina are controlled by their school boards or superintendents, you might want to check out Act 294 of 2010.

In just 40 days that year, the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield, sailed through the Senate and House, and was signed into law by then-Gov. Mark Sanford.

The bill never received any committee or floor debate. At the request of Coleman and the only other member of the Fairfield County delegation – then-Rep. Boyd Brown, a Democrat – it was approved in their respective chambers with a simple “unanimous consent,” legislative records show.

Frustrated that a decades-old, student-transfer agreement between the Fairfield and Chester school districts had broken down, the two lawmakers pushed through the “special” legislation forcing a new arrangment between the districts – with their legislative colleagues sitting on the sidelines.

The law, which took effect June 8, 2010, requires that students who live in the Mitford community in Fairfield County’s northeast corner be allowed to attend schools in neighboring Chester County, which is closer to their community than Fairfield County schools; and that the Fairfield County School District pay the Chester County district for educating Mitford-area students.

In South Carolina, county delegations can – and often have done over the years – propose “special” legislation affecting only one or a few areas in the state. The S.C. Constitution bans special legislation if it conflicts with or duplicates more general laws, which apply to the entire state, according to state Supreme Court rulings.

But on Wednesday, a sharply divided Supreme Court upheld the Fairfield County delegation’s power over their county school district in the Mitford matter.

In a 3-2 vote, the high court affirmed Circuit Court Judge Ernest Kinard’s 2012 ruling that Act. 294 is constitutional.

“Thus, where a special law will best meet the exigencies of a particular situation, it is not unconstitutional,” Associate Justice Costa Pleicones wrote for the majority. “Restated, special legislation will survive a constitutional challenge where there is a logical basis and sound reasoning for resorting to such legislation.”

Pleicones was joined by Chief Justice Jean Toal and Associate Justice John Kittredge.

In his dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Donald Beatty, who was joined by Associate Justice Kaye Hearn, wrote, “I find there is no substantial distinction between FCSD (Fairfield County School District) and other school districts throughout the state to warrant the special legislation.”

“Until the enactment of Act No. 294, Fairfield County approved these transfers since 1947 and voluntarily reimbursed CCSD (Chester County School District) for the resultant expenses since 1973 even though it was never statutorily required to do so,” Beatty said. “Because Fairfield County has the resources and facilities to provide free public education for all of its resident children, I discern no reason why FCSD should now be statutorily required to reimburse CCSD for continued voluntary transfers as the general laws are sufficient to govern the transfer of Fairfield County resident children to CCSD.”

Efforts Thursday by The Nerve to reach Coleman were unsuccessful. An assistant at his Winnsboro law office said he was on vacation this week. Brown didn’t run for re-election in 2012.

Contacted Thursday, Beth Reid, chairwoman of the Fairfield County School Board, told The Nerve that Coleman and Boyd were “extremely frustrated with the dysfunction of the Fairfield County School Board at that time,” adding she was not on the school board then.

Still, Reid said while she understands “where they’re coming from with their frustration,” she was “disappointed that it had to come down to local legislation to resolve this.”

“In general terms, we wouldn’t want our local delegation to have that power, or anyone’s local delegation to have that power,” Reid said, though she quickly added, “We’re all working together now; we have mended some fences.”

Columbia attorney John Reagle, one of the lawyers representing the Chester County School District, toldThe Nerve when contacted Thursday that Act. 294 was “one of a few pieces of special legislation that Gov. Sanford did not veto.”

“I think he recognized … the unique circumstances for special legislation in this case,” Reagle said.

The Republican Sanford in 2010 did veto special legislation that would have stripped the Fairfield County School Board of its financial authority and given it to a special committee appointed by Coleman and Brown.

Only one vote was cast in the Senate to override the veto, which was done by Coleman. The Supreme Court, however, in 2011 ruled that Coleman’s vote and the 33 House votes to override Sanford’s veto were unconstitutional because a vote of two-thirds of a quorum, or a majority, of lawmakers in each chamber was required for the override, as reported then by The Nerve.

So for now, while one lawmaker no longer has the sole power to override a governor’s veto, county delegations can still push through the passage of special legislation, as was done by Coleman and Brown with Act 294.

Between 100 and 200 Mitford-area students who live in Fairfield County annually attend Great Falls schools in Chester County at no cost to the students or their families, according to court papers. In 1970, the U.S. District Court in South Carolina in a desegregation decree ordered that the all-black Mitford Elementary School be closed, and that its students be allowed to attend Great Falls schools or other schools in Fairfield County.

Under an agreement between the school districts, Fairfield County paid Chester County $25,000 annually for educational expenses for Mitford-area students attending Chester County schools. But that agreement ended in the 2009-10 school year, and Coleman and Brown pushed the special legislation after the Fairfield County district refused to continue negotiations, records show. After the law passed, the Chester County district billed the Fairfield County treasurer more than $1.8 million to cover the expenses of educating Mitford-area students for the previous three school years, according to court papers.

General state law allows students who live in one district to transfer to another school district if they live closer to schools in the non-resident district. The sending district makes the initial determination of eligibility, which is verified by the receiving district. The person responsible for the child’s education pays tuition, based on a formula, to the receiving district, which can waive some or all of the payment.

Act 294 conflicts with the general law in a number of ways, according to court papers filed by the Fairfield County School District, including:

  • The Chester County School Board alone determines eligibility;
  • The Fairfield County School District – not the parents or guardians of the transferring students – pays the Chester district, based on a formula, which, for the years at issue in the appeal, varied between $500,000 and $700,000 annually;
  • If the Fairfield County district fails to pay the annual amount, the state Department of Education must pay the money to the Chester County district out of state funds that are distributed to the Fairfield County district.

In addition to the law, a state budget proviso, which has been renewed annually, requires the Department of Education to cover the transportation costs of Mitford-area students who transfer to Chester County.

Reagle told The Nerve that the legislation was necessary to address a unique situation in South Carolina.

“I’m not aware of any situation in the state where a large number of students in a particular location are going to school in another district over a period of decades,” he said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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