By Neil Mellen || Spartanburg is a solidly Republican County.
In 2010, 56 percent of general election voters their cast their ballots for Republicans Nikki Haley (Governor) and Mick Zais (Superintendent of Education).
Officials at the local public schools lean a bit further left politically.
Since 2008, the seven district superintendents in Spartanburg County have given over $3,000 in personal political donations to state level Democrats and left-of-center Republicans.
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The money includes direct support for members of the so-called “Spartanburg Six,” a clique of aisle-crossing self-termed “Republicans” who conspired to derail school choice legislation earlier this summer in Columbia. It was a bill that was widely supported by parents and activists across South Carolina.
$3,000 may not seem likely a hefty sum. After all, the combined base salaries of these seven non-teaching school bureaucrats exceed $930,000. The single superintendent in neighboring Greenville County takes home a comparatively modest $218,000 base salary.
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But the $3,000 in direct campaign contributions doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. The real issue is their spending of taxpayer money to pursue the same ends …
The same district superintendents – ostensibly “public servants”– have used their positions as major local employers to pressure school employees to engage in political lobbying against school choice, expansion of charter schools, and other reforms to K-12 education they deem as personally threatening.
In early June, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was sent to the seven public school districts in Spartanburg County requesting copies of emails written by the seven superintendents to their staff and boards about H.3407 and S.520, the school choice bills.
The results were staggering. Hundreds of emails were obtained in which superintendents plead with their subordinates as well as their school boards to “please contact members of the committee[s] and urge them to vote against the bill[s].” District Four alone demanded over $1,400 to offset the cost of printing out 7,165 pages of emails to and from Superintendent Rallie Liston and staffers about the legislation.
But there is more; in addition to using public resources to directly pressure their own public employees to lobby, the Spartanburg Superintendents also coordinated with taxpayer funded special interest groups to orchestrate statewide efforts to fight against reforms to the public schools. Each and everyone of them regularly forwarded partisan political talking points and strategy memos from SCEA (an NEA sock-puppet), SCASA and SCSBA with directives for defeating the legislation to school principals and administrators to pass down their respective chains of command.
The emails from the FOIA request offer a peak at how local superintendents, particularly Scott Mercer (District 2), Rallie Liston (District 4) and Jim Ray (District 3) worked with lobbyists at the Administrators’ and School Boards’ Association to plot and plan the taxpayer-funded fight. These groups all use money from the state and the district for their day-to-day operations.
Included in the emails:
Superintendent Scott Mercer shared with District 2 PR woman Rhonda Henderson that Senator Wes Hayes (RINO-York) was weary of moving money away from the Virtual School program and into the Education Finance Act because “Hayes said (privately) that keeping the funding in place would help to slow down the private school voucher [sic] and tax credit movement.” Hayes went on to vote against the school choice bill, effectively trapping it in his Senate Education Committee.
Mercer also enjoyed praise from House Member Steve Parker (RINO-Spartanburg) and an admonishment to keep his teachers “making calls to representatives, getting involved in elections of people they support, writing checks to support people that support them, going to political events, etc…”
Superintendent Jim Ray (District 3) drafted his own detailed talking points and sent them over 60 key staffers begging them to “please call Senator Harvey Peeler, a key member of the Senate Education Committee, before 11 am Wednesday April 20 and ask him to urge them to vote against the tuition tax credit /voucher [sic] bill…” He also provided other superintendents with the lobbying templates.
Ray went on to brag to the other Spartanburg Superintendents that his district’s efforts were “way ahead [of other districts’] in this debate in content and class” after emailing newspaper editorials arguing against the legislation to district and school administrators.
The controversial Superintendent of District 4, Rallie Liston, emailed each and every district employee with links to a State Newspaper editorial railing against the School Choice bill. Several angry employees forwarded the missive onto the Voice who hit “reply all” and suggested it was not Liston’s job to push a political agenda on his staff. Liston then confided in his staff and the other Spartanburg Superintendents that he was “responding at several levels soon.” Liston sarcastically noted that there was “nothing I could do” if someone in the district used a “private email” account to send out attacks on choice advocates to the full district email address book. He also directed staff to create and distribute further talking points against the legislation for distribution among teachers.
District 5’s Scott Turner sent out massive “blind BCC” emails throughout his district with the negative (and empirically suspicious) anti-legislation analysis of Harry Miley who has hired to testify against the legislation by SCASA and SCSBA.
In Darryl Owings’ District 6, local school principals emailed their teachers asking them to “take time to read this [link to SCASA talking points] during your planning [period] or after school. This contains information regarding [the] voucher [sic] tuition tax credit bill and how to get in touch with your legislator.” The link contained pre-written “personal” emails channeled directly to state lawmakers attacking the bill.
District 7’s Russel Booker and his staff created cut-and-paste content for their teachers and links of lawmakers’ phone numbers, email addresses and snail mail addresses in their effort to utilize public school teachers, working on district time and equipment, for political purposes. No word yet if they also pushed for higher spending on grass or golf courses.
No matter your personal feelings on school choice, Charter Schools or other K12 education policies issues, your money is paying for bloated school bureaucracies in Spartanburg that function as political machines for the Superintendents you pay to “lead” them.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Neil Mellen is director of communications for South Carolinians for Responsible Government (SCRG), a group that supports academic freedom and other limited government reforms in the Palmetto state. To read more of his work, head over to The Voice.