Is District driving Teacher Village?

WINNSBORO – A proposed “Teacher Village” has been portrayed as primarily a function of the Fairfield County School District Education Foundation, and not the school district office.

In reality, the district has been just as hands-on, if not more.

Whether it’s filing startup documents, lobbying public officials or soliciting taxpayer money, district office personnel have been intimately involved in the Teacher Village, public records show.

If approved, the Teacher Village would begin with 30 homes on 22 acres of land the district owns behind the administration building off U.S. 321 Bypass. Taxpayer money would provide rent subsidies to teachers living there.

Gorelick Brothers Financial, a Charlotte, North Carolina firm that would build the development, is also seeking a $600,000 property tax waiver.

Documents obtained through the state’s Freedom of Information Act show the district office has been deeply involved in creating the foundation, registering it and working hand-in-hand with the foundation on the Teacher Village.

The symbiotic relationship between the district and foundation differs from how Dr. J.R. Green, district superintendent, described the relationship in a November 2016 interview with The Voice.

“The School District’s Board establishes the Foundation, but after that, the District has no oversight or control over the Foundation,” Green told The Voice.

Green couldn’t be reached for comment.

During the school board’s October 2018 meeting, Green said the district’s only investment in the Teacher Village is providing land for the project.

“The school district has deeded the 22 acres of land to the foundation,” Green said. “All the conversation, all the agreements and all the arrangements moving forward are between the foundation and Gorelick Brothers.”

Others, however, think the lines are blurred between the foundation and school board.

“It may not be your sister, but it’s your stepsister,” said Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy.

Building a Foundation

The school district’s board of trustees voted to establish the foundation in November 2016.

At the time, Green said the district would pay the roughly $1,000 needed to establish the foundation as a 501(c)(3) organization.

He also told the board of trustees that he would want to appoint the foundation’s board members, but later told The Voice the foundation would elect its own officers.

In March 2017, the district formally registered with the Secretary of State’s office, according to incorporation documents obtained by The Voice.

Kevin Robinson, the district’s director of finance, is listed in those documents as the foundation’s original registered agent.

Documents also show the foundation and school district share the same street address – 1226 U.S. Highway 321 Bypass South.

Dr. Sue Rex, wife of former State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, was appointed chair of the foundation board at the April 2017 foundation meeting, according to the minutes.

Robinson, however, remained the registered agent until June 2017, when the district filed paperwork transferring that role to Rex.

In 2016, when the board of trustees voted to create the foundation, Board Chairman William Frick said forming a foundation was beneficial because it would encourage donations to help fund the Teacher Village.

At first, that’s the direction the foundation pursued.

“Foundation board members discussed potential fundraising ideas to include a capital campaign and Go Fund me,” the April 2017 minutes state.

Minutes in subsequent meetings show the foundation actively discussed working with Fairfield County and S.C. Uplift Community Outreach in seeking state and federal grant opportunities.

The September 2017 minutes state BB&T expressed interest in the Teacher Village, and there were also detailed discussions about HUD grants. However, the latter option proved to be a challenge.

“After talking with lending institutions, we realized the only way we could put together the project was with HUD money,” Rex said during an October presentation to Fairfield County Council.

HUD has a $64,000 cap per household, which would eliminate virtually any teacher with a working spouse.

“The only problem with HUD money is there’s a limit on how much people in that household can earn in order to live there,” Rex said. “HUD housing isn’t really going to work for us.”

District seeks taxpayer help

There wasn’t any public mention of taxpayer support for the Teacher Village until Green mentioned it during a recent County Council meeting.

On Oct. 22, under questioning from Councilman Jimmy Ray Douglas, Green acknowledged taxpayer money would subsidize $300 in monthly rent reductions for teachers living in the village.

“I’m interested in how you plan to rent these houses for no more than $600 to $900 a month. It seems low for what the tenants would be getting based on the square footage,” Douglas said. “How will the houses be rented for rates this low? Is it possible the school district will be subsidizing the rental fees?”

Green said the subsidies come from a proviso state lawmakers inserted into the state budget, which is mostly supported by state income taxes.

The proviso allocates millions of dollars to the S.C. Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention & Advancement, or CERRA.

In 2017-2018, CERRA received $9.5 million via the proviso. The rest of its nearly $19 million budget came from other expenditures, according to the organization’s annual report.

Jane Turner, executive director of CERRA, said she and Green have discussed using state funds for the Teacher Village.

Turner said the district has previously requested funds from CERRA, but not for the Teacher Village. She and Green have discussed the Teacher Village, though.

“It [the Teacher Village] is an appropriate use of the funds,” she said. “They haven’t yet requested funds. I’ve talked to the superintendent briefly about it.”

Turner said a special formula is used to determine a district’s allocation. Using that formula, she said the district is eligible to receive $150,600.

“There’s just a form that has to be filled out and sent to my organization and I approve it if it’s an appropriate allocation,” Turner said.

Green, Rex and Gorelick

With HUD eliminated as an option to fund the Teacher Village, the foundation turned to the private sector.

Rex said that’s when she was introduced to Gorelick Brothers, which was willing to fund most of the project – with a catch.

Gorelick would front $3 million of the $3.6 million necessary to build the Teacher Village. In exchange, it wanted a $600,000, seven-year tax abatement. That would require a County Council vote to establish a multicounty business park.

Green said the foundation has been handling most of the discussions with Gorelick, though the district and foundation have both relayed Gorelick’s request to the county.

“We’re just advocating on behalf of the investor at this point in time,” he said.

As for the development itself, Green said the district has been handling efforts to get the Teacher Village property rezoned from commercial to residential.

“The school district is attempting to rezone the property before it’s transferred,” to the foundation, Green said. “So a formal request will come from the school district relating to the zoning.”

Both Green and Rex have been meeting with Fairfield County staff and elected leaders, privately and publicly.

The most recent meeting between the government agencies occurred last month in which the county voiced concerns with the multicounty business park request.

Council Chairman Billy Smith told Green and Rex if the county approves the business park before the Teacher Village property is rezoned, he wants Gorelick to agree to an indemnification clause to shield the county from legal liabilities.

Green said Monday night was the first he’d heard of the indemnification clause, though Rex and Smith said they’ve been discussing it.

“In terms of this indemnification clause, it’s the first that I’ve heard that,” Green said.

“Let me just say this, I’ve never spoken to anyone at Gorelick directly. The communication I’ve had has been with Dr. Rex,” Smith replied. “I’m sure she will tell you that we’ve discussed that a number of times for two plus weeks now, the idea of indemnification.”

“I have brought that up to Gorelick,” Rex affirmed. “They know you’re asking that. They haven’t responded about it.”