R2 Super’s California trip raises critic’s ire

COLUMBIA – Richland Two school board trustees are lashing out at one of their biggest critics over him questioning the district superintendent’s planned speaking engagement in Los Angeles next month. 

One by one, at the Feb. 11 meeting, trustees chided Richland County resident Gus Philpott for characterizing the upcoming California conference as a junket.

Dr. Baron Davis

“Superintendent Davis belongs at his desk and on his feet in Richland School District Two. His speaking to members of the League of Innovative Schools in California on the equity initiatives underway in Richland Two provides no benefit or value to Richland Two,” Philpot said. 

“It’s really bothering me that a superintendent is being questioned, or challenged, about going out of state, about going to a national conference and going to represent our district,” Trustee Cheryl Caution-Parker said. “I find it reprehensible and I really am questioning the real, the real reason behind all of this.”

Board Trustee Amelia McKie said whether Davis receives any pay for speaking is inconsequential.

“That’s nobody’s business. If it’s private income, that’s no one else’s business,” she said.

State law, however, holds a different view. The South Carolina Ethics Act requires superintendents to report income or compensation from speaking engagements, regardless of whether the event is public or private.

Section 8-13-1120 states superintendents must declare “the amount of such payment or reimbursement, and the purpose, date, and location of the speaking engagement” on their annual Statements of Economic Interest form, filed each year with the S.C. Ethics Commission.

At issue is the biannual four-day League of Innovative Schools Conference in Los Angeles, California where Dr. Davis is one of many superintendents who are invited to participate as a panelist.

The (March 23-25) conference coincides with the board’s previously scheduled March 25 meeting. As a result, the board was asked to move the meeting date to March 31. 

The board did in a 6-1 vote, with Lindsay Agostini opposing. But according to the conference agenda, Davis had already accepted the invitation before asking the board’s approval.

Earlier, during the first public input session, Philpott said the trip came at the expense of conducting the day-to-day business of running Richland Two, for which Davis earns almost $1,000 per day in salary, $1,250 per month in car allowance ($14,850 annually) and other benefits.

“As you make your decisions tonight, I ask that you remember the fiduciary duties of your office,” Philpot said, addressing board members. “You are responsible for running a business with many millions of dollars in assets,” Philpott said. “Each decision should be made with what is best for the entire district rather than only how you might like to help out one employee.”

This isn’t Philpott’s first clash with the Richland Two board.

He frequently calls out board members for failing to file campaign disclosure reports with the S.C. Ethics Commission, going as far as stating two board members are illegally seated.

Eleven months ago, board trustee Teresa Holmes even filed a harassment complaint against Philpott. However, the Richland County Sheriff’s department never filed any charges in the matter.

In the latest spat, Philpot also took aim at the conference itself, saying Richland Two doesn’t “need more liberal, California-based philosophies,” drawing additional rebukes from several board members.

“Imagine if a teacher said he/she had a side hustle during the work week and wanted time off to handle it,” he said, addressing board members. “I urge you to hold the regular meeting as scheduled.”

Agostini said she thought moving the meeting date would be unfair to parents whose children face expulsion hearings, which the board considers in executive session at its meetings. The date change would delay those hearings for a week.

 She also thought the decision to approve the trip set a bad precedent.

“How frequently will the board be asked to change meetings because of a conflict with the superintendent?” she asked.

On Tuesday, Agostini further explained her position in a prepared statement.

“In light of the political climate in our state and Richland County focusing on ethics and spending issues, I believe my question was appropriate and necessary,” the statement said. “Not only does the board need to know who is paying for the trip, the taxpayers and employees of our district need to know as well.”

Other board members showered Davis with gushing praise for having been invited, characterizing his invitation as a national honor.

“You are one of the finest superintendents that I have seen,” Trustee Teresa Holmes said. “He’s not going on a pleasure cruise to the beach. He’s going to represent the district and highlight things we are doing positive in this district.”

In actuality, the League of Innovative Schools Conference is held twice a year. The March meeting lists at least 20 speakers, according to an online agenda. 

Davis is among three panelists scheduled to speak Monday, March 23 in a session titled “Equity in Practice: Language, Culture, People,” the agenda states. 

Davis didn’t directly answer a question posed at the Feb. 11 meeting that sought a cost breakdown of his trip, saying only that the League reimburses dues-paying members, like Richland Two, after the fact. But he was not clear if that reimbursement covered all his expenses or if the District covered what was not covered by the reimbursement.

In 2019-2020, the district paid $3,500 in dues to the League of Innovative Schools, but is only eligible to receive $1,200 in annual travel reimbursement, said district spokeswoman Libby Roof. The district would be obligated to pay anything over the $1,200 amount.

“I’m a little embarrassed that I have to defend myself about the work that I do to advance this school district and bring positive light to what we do,” Davis said.

This will be the fifth League conference that Davis has attended since Fall 2017. Davis also didn’t specifically say whether or not the League is paying him to speak, stating during the meeting that he’s taking a “professional day” to participate on the panel.