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State superintendent’s new power to fire school board members faces pushback

Updated: Jun. 2, 2021 at 7:00 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Gov. Henry McMaster’s signature on Senate Bill 201 expanded the powers of South Carolina’s superintendent of education.

The new act allows Superintendent Molly Spearman to fire entire school boards in underperforming districts.

If more than 65% of a districts’ schools are rated as “underperforming” for three years in a row, Spearman can declare a state of emergency. The State Board of Education has to agree and, if it does, then the state can step in for six years and all local board members are removed from office.

The South Carolina School Boards Association is a non-profit representing school boards across the state. Executive Director Scott Price says this new power is an over-reach.

“We are talking about a minimum of six years without an elected body overseeing that district. Which means six years of voter disassociation, disenfranchisement,” Price said. “School boards are now the only elected body in South Carolina that can be removed. That’s not fair, it’s not right and is something that is a major concern for us.”

Currently, the state has stepped in to run districts in Williamsburg County, Allendale County and Florence District 4. Price say those takeovers were all done under different statutes and the school boards remain intact, however there is no formal association between the boards and the schools.

“The reasoning from what I understand behind the removal of boards is that, in the current takeover situations, the issue I believe, and I don’t want to speak for Mrs. Spearman, is that the boards have not been cooperative and therefore it became necessary to basically dismiss that entire board,” Price said.

Williamsburg School Board Member Rev. Alford Darby says they have not interfered with what the state is doing in their district but argues it’s unconstitutional for one elected officer to remove another without voter consent.

“We don’t have queens in America,” Darby said. “I’m disgusted because it is a power grab and it’s a violation of individual rights of Americans.”

He says there’s already a system in place for removing bad actors and poor performing leaders: elections.

“You’re calling the citizens basically ignorant,” Darby said. “That’s what we have voting for. If a board member is not doing his or her job, it’s the people’s job to remove them.”

Prices says the new power could run into legal issues as well.

“The districts that have been taken over are mostly minority-majority districts,” Price said. “So we are concerned about how it would run afoul of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

That piece of federal legislation prohibits racial discrimination in voting. Darby says he believes the new law is racially discriminatory. He also says it’s unfair to have a removal process for school board members but not other elected officials.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing a recall effort. There are a total of 39 states that can recall elected leaders but South Carolina is not one of them.

“If we are going to hold school boards accountable, we should hold the state superintendent accountable,” Darby said. “South Carolina is still one of the last in education and Mrs. Spearman has been there for a while and so if scores don’t improve dramatically, we ought to have a procedure to remove her.”

The ability to fire school board members does not go into effect until July 2022. Price believes the law was written in a way that does not allow the state education superintendent to fire any of the school district boards currently under state control because they were taken over under different provisions.

“Those laws have no dismissal or dissolvement provisions in them so we don’t believe the authority is there to make this retroactive,” Price said.

Spearman’s office agrees, saying in a statement:

The effective date of the bill is July 1, 2022 and it does not retroactively remove school board members under current state control. The timing of when the legislation goes into effect coupled with the SCDE’s current management of three districts creates a unique challenge that we are working with the General Assembly to address. We anticipate having a solution to this before the law’s enactment date in July 2022.

They also say allowing a district to be mismanaged in perpetuity would result in the loss of generations of students and a dereliction of duty to provide adequate public education.

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