State lawmakers have strong grip on local schools in two S.C. counties
By Rick Brundrett
S.C. Sen. Kevin Johnson’s wife and daughter work for Clarendon School District 2. Another daughter is the school board chairwoman.
Last week, Johnson, a Democrat from Manning, introduced a local bill – which passed the Senate in two days – that would give the three-member Clarendon County delegation, of which Johnson is the chairman, the power to appoint all nine members of Clarendon 2 school board and four of the nine members of the Clarendon 1 board.
Under state law, the delegation for years has appointed the seven-member Clarendon County Board of Education, which selects the entire Clarendon 2 school board and four members of the Clarendon 1 board.
The other five members of the Clarendon 1 board are popularly elected, as are all seven members of the Clarendon 3 board.
The bill, which is now in the House, would eliminate the county school board on July 1, and give Johnson and the two other members of the county delegation – Democratic Reps. Cezar McKnight and Robert Ridgeway – direct appointment power over all Clarendon 2 school board members and part of the Clarendon 1 board.
Contacted by The Nerve, Sen. Johnson, who previously served as a House member from 2011-12 and mayor of Manning from 2000-2011, said he didn’t see any conflicts of interest in his appointment authority should his bill become law.
“The people who know me know that’s not going to be an issue,” said Johnson, who served on the Clarendon 2 school board in the 1990s. “I’ve never asked for any special favors for any of my family.”
Johnson said he was not involved in the Clarendon 2 district’s hiring of his wife, Gloria, an administrative assistant, and their daughter, Kyndra, a licensed master social worker.
He also said he didn’t influence the appointment of their other daughter, Kimberly, to the Clarendon 2 school board, noting that the county school board initially rejected her for the local school board.
“I don’t ever tell anybody who to appoint,” he said.
Asked about the possibility of voting on his daughter’s reappointment to the board if his bill becomes law, Johnson said he would recuse himself from that vote.
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.”
Clarendon, Dillon and Anderson are the only counties with county school boards in addition to local school boards, according to the South Carolina School Boards Association (SCSBA), a nonprofit training and lobbying organization for the state’s 81 school districts. Kimberly Johnson serves on the 22-member SCSBA’s Board of Directors.
Members of the Anderson County Board of Education are popularly elected and “exercise fiscal authority over the five local school district boards,” according to the SCSBA’s website.
In Dillon County, the county legislative delegation appoints the county school board, which selects all of the members of the two local school boards.
Democratic Rep. Jackie Hayes, one of four members of the Dillon County legislative delegation, received $99,368 last year as the head football coach and athletics director in Dillon County School District 4, while his wife made $95,298 as a district administrator, according to his annual income-disclosure report filed last month with the State Ethics Commission. He also reported $35,634 in income and benefits as a lawmaker.
The Nerve in 2013 reported about Rep. Hayes’ apparent change of heart in relinquishing his appointment power over the county school board.
Sen. Johnson, who describes himself on the Legislature’s website as a “full-time legislator,” reported $31,687 in “family income” from Clarendon School District 2 last year, in addition to $43,680 in income and $30,983 in benefits as a lawmaker, according to his latest income-disclosure report.
Johnson told The Nerve a school-district consolidation bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, and debated recently on the Senate floor, would result in the consolidation of the small Summerton-based Clarendon 1 and Turbeville-based Clarendon 3 districts. He said officials in those districts support consolidation with a popularly elected school board.
“I would ultimately like to have one school district for Clarendon County with one elected school board,” Johnson said, though he noted constituents in the Manning-based Clarendon 2 district – the largest of the three – generally don’t favor consolidation, adding, “I understand what can happen when you force those things down people’s throats.”
Given that situation, even if the Clarendon 1 and 3 districts merge and a new consolidated school board is popularly elected, appointments to the District 2 school board in the near future would either continue to be made by the county school board – whose members are selected by the county legislative delegation – or directly controlled by the delegation if Johnson’s bill becomes law.
Local bills such as Johnson’s typically aren’t vetted through the normal legislative committee process. His Senate-passed bill was introduced in the House and referred directly to the Clarendon County delegation, records show.
“Those local bills usually go pretty fast,” Johnson said.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.