SC Inspector General’s report on the Richland 2 School District and Board

COLUMBIA – Fiscal abuse, frequent FOIA violations and general dysfunction permeate a scathing report on the Richland Two Board of Trustees.

State Inspector General (SIG) Brian Lamkin’s 53-page report released Nov. 3 also validates a complaint that two trustees — Amelia McKie and Teresa Holmes — don’t legally hold office because they were sworn in before filing required ethics forms.

Lamkin’s report, while noting Richland Two’s above average student achievement, said the board’s lack of unity and constant, non-academic dysfunction still show room for improvement.

“This is where a unified Board focused on academic achievement and supportive of the superintendent and District staff can have its greatest impact,” the report said. “To do anything else is a disservice to the students, parents and taxpayers of the District.”

In response, the board as a whole released a prepared statement, which acknowledges the Inspector General’s findings and pledges to improve how it conducts the public’s business.

“It’s imperative that Board Members learn and grow as policymakers for this District,” their response says. “We will work civilly and transparently with each other, the District administration and with the public.”

The district itself released its own response, which notes the report doesn’t “assert intentional wrongdoing by the District,” and that the district is working to improve how it functions.

“The IG Report also demonstrates that the District is not immune to the pressures that are affecting public and private workplaces, in general, and education in particular – most notably: recruiting challenges, post-pandemic recovery issues, contentiousness and clashes of social values,” the response states.

SIG scolds trustees

Gov. Henry McMaster requested the Inspector General investigation amid a flurry of complaints over how the Richland Two board conducts business.

Attesting to that need, only 14.2 percent of board agenda items over the past four years actually involved academic matters as meetings themselves have grown increasingly chaotic, according to the report.

“The Board addressed only five academic items over the last two school years when Board member acrimony and disruptive communications directed toward the superintendent, District staff and the public were the greatest,” the report said.

In his report, Lamkin calls out four of seven Richland Two trustees for violating various board policies and FOIA law.

Trustee Lashonda McFadden received the most ink in Lamkin’s report. The report lists the following: potential ethics violation and district indebtedness, circumvention of internal controls, public confrontations, and circumvention of FOIA through email communications.

McFadden, the report states, abused board travel privileges.

For one conference, McFadden incurred $100 per night suite upgrade fees and $125 pet cleaning fees while attending a conference. Neither upgrade received board approval.

McFadden is also indebted to the district for $2,497.70, which covers school meal debt and other school related fees for her children. 

“McFadden frequently advocated her position on Board issues that was consistent with open debate at a public Board meeting,” the report states. “Mrs. McFadden was not the only Board member who engaged four or more members through District and personal email communications on Board matters in violations of FOIA, but she was the most prolific.”

One of those board members was Amelia McKie, who also blind copied board members on emails. 

McKie told the Inspector General that the board had received training that recommended blind copying fellow board members, though the S.C. School Board Association denied giving any such advice.

McKie made a similar statement at a recent hearing before the State Ethics Commission, where she testified to receiving unspecified training that board member salaries weren’t reportable income.

“As soon as I was notified that I was wrong, I brought myself into compliance immediately,” McKie testified.

The report references McKie’s outstanding $57,000 in fines owed for various state ethics violations. She is currently on a repayment plan to repay the debt.

Teresa Holmes, immediate past board chairman, violated numerous board policies associated with an executive session in April, including failing to admonish another board member for recording the executive session.

The report also notes the Ethics Commission fined Holmes for failing to file a Statement of Economic Interest (SEI) form.

James Manning, the current board chair, is admonished in the report for the previously referenced “surreptitious recording” of the April executive session, in violation of board policy.

Manning violated additional board policies when he disclosed information discussed during an executive session in September, according to the report.

“According to a confidential, reliable source, Mr. Manning disclosed to a former District employee that the District entered into a settlement with a former school administrator,” the report said.

Trustees Lindsay Agostini, Monica Scott, and Cheryl Caution-Parker did not violate board policies, according to the report.

Oath of office addressed

The report also affirmed that Amelia McKie and Teresa Holmes are potentially subject to removal from the board for taking their respective oaths of office before filing SEI forms with the Ethics Commission.

However, such removal would likely require court action as opposed to action from the State Ethics Commission, according to a recent S.C. Attorney General Office opinion.

Section 8-13-1110 of state law says no public official “may take the oath of office or enter upon his official responsibilities” unless an SEI form is filed.

Richland Two trustees were sworn in Nov. 13, 2018, according to a Richland Two news release. Neither McKie nor Holmes filed file SEI forms until Dec. 4, 2018, ethics filings show.

While the courts haven’t forcefully removed candidates, in 2012 the S.C. Supreme Court knocked dozens of candidates off the ballot for failing to properly file SEI forms, suggesting McKie and Holmes could be removed via court action.

“Given that our courts take a strict view that require candidates to file a statement of economic interest, a court could declare such an individual ineligible to hold office and remove them,” the opinion states.

The October 11 opinion also said the ethics commission could also bring civil and criminal charges, and that such charges could be grounds for removal.

SEI forms list a candidate’s income sources and other positions they hold that may pose a potential conflict.

What comes next

As a whole, the SIG report listed seven findings of violation of board policy or FOIA law and issued numerous recommendations. 

Chief among the recommendations is additional training on board policy.

“Board dysfunction and member conduct fostered a hostile environment, which created reputational, operational, and legal risk and harmed District operations, fiscal affairs, and human capital management,” the report states.

The report lists numerous other recommendations:

  • Adhere to all board policies, especially when trustees request information
  • Process board travel reimbursements within 10 business days
  • Enact safeguards to prevent unauthorized travel expenditures
  • Use district (not personal) email accounts to discuss district business
  • Use district (not personal) portable devices, including a cell phone, to discuss district business
  • Revise board policy to include a legal review concerning trespass restrictions
  • Follow FOIA statute when orderly conduct of meetings is seriously compromised

The recommendations, however, may be irrelevant as four incumbent board members will soon leave the board. Trustees McKie, Manning, and Caution-Parker did not seeking re-election. Holmes was not re-elected. McFadden, Scott, and Agostini are up for re-election in 2024.

This story was updated on Nov. 10, 2022 at 9:06 a.m.

Comments

  1. Gus Philpott says

    The School Board should DIRECT the superintendent. Then, if he follows their directions, be supportive of him. If he doesn’t, correct him. This board (the Core Four – majority) never did that. They supported him without directing him. They were followers, not leaders. The board, and especially the superintendent, does NOT pre-approve hotel upgrades. If a traveling trustee wants to upgrade, then upgrade. It’s a personal expense. All the hoop-de-lah about Trustee McFadden’s upgrade is smoke-and-mirrors – a deflection. She paid it within six weeks of incurring it.

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