Foundation behind Charleston Co. schools proposal also funding hundreds of charities

Published: Jan. 4, 2022 at 3:39 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 4, 2022 at 10:23 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The Coastal Community Foundation wants the Charleston County School District to invest $32 million into a project that would see the development of community groups – called Innovation Commissions - that would be tasked with determining what is causing low performance in about two dozen schools.

As the school board gets ready to make a final decision on the Reimagine Schools plan on Jan. 10, some are still looking for more details on who is behind the proposal.

CCF is a nonprofit founded in 1974 and made up of some of South Carolina’s top business people including billionaire Anita Zucker and CEOs like Larry Mercado of Bold Biologix and Ronda Dean of Afaxys, Inc.

According to its website, the foundation was formed out of a passion for community service and a desire to pool resources together to set up a long-term fund to support community programs. CCF claims to be among the top 75 largest community foundations in the country.

Along with giving out millions of dollars to other community groups and projects around the state and country, they have had a strong lobbying effort in the state legislature in the past.

In 2021, president and CEO Darrin Goss personally pushed the schools of innovation bill that was made law last year.

The bill allows schools to seek waivers to get out of certain state requirements if approved by the local school board and the state Department of Education. It also allows districts to partner with non-profit management groups to run schools in public-private partnerships – much like how Meeting Street Schools operates at Burns and Brentwood Elementary Schools.

Opponents of the Reimagine Schools proposal say it’s just an effort to off load struggling schools to non-profits where public oversight becomes more difficult.

“We know who they are, what they’re trying to accomplish, and that is to privatize the public schools. Meaning the board does not have direct oversight of that particular school,” said Jesse Williams with the Quality Education Project. “Public-private partnerships can be more exclusionary than a simple public school. . . and that’s what a lot of people really fear.”

However, School Board Chair Eric Mack says CCF is simply an interested group looking to help turn around failing schools. He says the goal is to move the needle on student achievement and if CCF’s plan can get it done, then he is on board.

“I get that they feel that private corporations and entities will come in and overtake our schools,” Mack said. “However, in this proposal, in this MOU there is no takeover from any private company or entity, as the proposal is laid out. The board will still have full control over the schools will still have full control over the budget.”

Goss has had his hand in prior effort to rehabilitate schools in the past with connections to the Mission Critical.

While Goss says they aren’t in the business of running schools, the Reimagine plan calls for a convener and a technical advisor that can effectively run the newly formed group meetings and help with the technical side of their ideas. CCF could be that intervener which is budgeted at $410,000 throughout the duration of the proposal.

“I’ll just clarify our role is to be a convener, a facilitator to actually bring in some for instances disparate voices to the table in a process that creates the best outcomes for children,” Goss said. “I think they understand the purposes for the resources, approximately 31.1 million of these dollars, is absolutely to focus on schools by directly investing in the innovations that the schools through the commission process would implement.”

Several groups have shown support for Reimagine, including a local parent advocacy group called Charleston Rise. However, Rise is one of the many groups that have received money from CCF as recently as this year. Tax documents show in 2019, CCF gave millions of dollars in the form of awarded grants to 393 groups and organizations across the United States and several more international groups. Those organizations span from Coastal Carolina University to MUSC to the Post and Courier Foundation and the International African American Museum.

A spokesperson for CCF says they don’t donate to P&C. She says P&C’s community journalism fund is held at CCF to collect donations. As a community foundation grantmaking to nonprofits is primarily what CCF does according to the spokesperson, adding that they do not “donate”, but rather award grants.

CCF’s website says they have more than 700 charitable funds and has $289 million in combined assets as of today.

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