As Blythewood Turns: R2 board condones bad behavior

Some Richland Two school board members have gone months – years, even – without addressing unfiled ethics forms, with five-figure fines levied against two elected officials.
The Richland Two Board of Trustees had an opportunity to institute a sound system of accountability by amending board policy so that a member’s board office title could be stripped “for cause.”

Examples of office titles include chair, vice-chair and secretary. The policy wouldn’t have removed a board member; only the governor has that power under specific conditions, usually after a conviction for a felony or crime of “moral turpitude.”

However, the board blew its opportunity to make a correction in its wayward path by voting 4-3 against amending the policy, thereby sending the message to students and taxpayers alike that it’s OK for board members to disregard debts, shout obscenities in public and shun their responsibilities as adults/school board members.

Two members voting against the policy revision – James Shadd III, an attorney, and board chair Amelia McKie, a lobbyist – have faced stiff fines from the S.C. Ethics Commission for failing to file multiple campaign disclosure reports.

In 2014, Shadd III faced $65,000 in ethics fines before he negotiated the amount down to $6,500, according to ethics commission records.

McKie, meantime, still owes $51,750. She was initially fined $600 in July 2016, and the penalties have snowballed since then, ethics records show.

Also voting against the policy amendment were board members Teresa Holmes and Cheryl Caution-Parker. Both failed to file various ethics forms as well until after The Voice published a series of investigative reports about unfiled ethics reports.

Opposing board members tried to rationalize their votes by taking aim at two words – “for cause.” They thought the policy revision should more specifically define “for cause.”

We think that’s absurd. A fixed definition of “for cause” is not needed.

Take a look at the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which contains similar phrasing. Citizens are protected from unreasonable searches unless police find “probable cause.” A definition of “probable cause” doesn’t exist anywhere in the Fourth Amendment, yet it’s been upheld as a part of the Bill of Rights since 1791.

Bogging down debate over “for cause” is a smokescreen, a way for opposing board members to insulate themselves from accountability.

The Richland Two school board is responsible for administering a $273.9 million budget, a budget funded primarily by school property taxes. Voters also approved a board-endorsed bond referendum totaling another half billion dollars and subsidized with a tax increase.

Richland Two voters deserve better from their elected school board officials who oversee these funds.
When public officials are unable to follow the law, it calls into question their ability to manage taxpayer money and responsibly implement public policy.

We place our trust in those who we elect to public office. When those officials act unethically or illegally, it warrants attention from other board members, constituents and taxpayers.

It’s not a “distraction” as the chairwoman continues to assert in an off-handed manner.

These ethics brouhahas that have stemmed from board members failing to file campaign disclosures and SEI forms are much more than “distractions.” They are clear signals that a candidate is not fit for public office.

If an elected official can’t manage his or her own personal finances, how can he/she be trusted to handle millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money?
Campaign disclosure reports help ensure that candidates are playing by the rules by not accepting dark money or exceeding donation limits.

SEI forms are designed to reveal conflicts of interest that could, potentially, influence elected officials’ decision-making.
The S.C. Supreme Court has held the filing of SEI forms in such high regard that in 2012, a court ruling caused more than 200 candidates to be tossed from the ballot, all because they failed to properly file SEI forms.

Not filing SEI forms opens the board to litigation as well. State law very clearly states no public official “may take the oath of office or enter upon his official responsibilities” unless an SEI form is filed. Several board members hadn’t met this requirement when they were sworn in after the November 2018 election, placing the legitimacy of any decisions they made before finally filing in doubt.

In a tangentially related case, board member Monica Elkins-Johnson is facing a criminal disorderly conduct charge in relation to an altercation that occurred following the Jan. 22 meeting. Board member ethics were discussed in detail that night as well.

To Elkins-Johnson’s credit, however, she stepped up to the plate and voted in favor of the board policy which, ironically, she would potentially be subject to since she’s vice-chair of the board.

And at the Feb. 12 meeting, she also publicly apologized for the language she used in the altercation.

Still, both that incident, McKie continuing to fail to address her mounting fines and the taking of salaries for seats some board members were not entitled to because they had not filed SEIs, is something of a double standard.

In October 2018, during a presentation on discipline, the board was informed that out-of-school suspensions and expulsions were on the rise. And during every board meeting, members voted to suspend, expel or send students to Blythewood Academy for some of the very behavior the members have exhibited.

If the members of the Richland District Two school board want to do the right thing by the students they oversee and the taxpayers whose money they manage, they could immediately set a better example and mete out to themselves the same punishments they regularly mete out to dozens of students each month for the same an