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HOW THE S.C. PUBLIC EDUCATION ESTABLISHMENT DEALS WITH CRITICISM

FITSNews – October 15, 2007 – When we were first leaked the story of Fairfield County School Board Chairwoman Annie McDaniel, we thought we were being handed an open-and-shut case of public school corruption – something we feast on with the relish of a proud lioness hungrily devouring the carcass of a slow zebra.

“Public School Official Takes Taxpayer Credit Card On Unauthorized Sorority Fling,” was the story we were initially pitched, and as the words dripped from our source’s lips through the telephone receiver, we could literally feel ourselves salivating at the prospect of unleashing our poison pen on yet another unsuspecting apologist for South Carolina’s failed status quo.

Little did we know, however, that the story we would ultimately end up writing about Annie McDaniel would include more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel – and that its surprise ending did not expose one woman’s corruption, but rather the corruption of an institution trying to destroy her for speaking her mind and challenging it to do a better job of educating its children.

To be fair, at first glance the charges leveled against McDaniel have some basis in reality. She did, in fact, use a Fairfield County School District credit card to pay for a “sorority trip” to New Orleans. But that’s where the “basis in reality” ends, and the story of a smear campaign the likes of which we’ve never seen begins …

According to the local Herald Independent newspaper in Fairfield, S.C., McDaniel did attend a Delta Sigma Theta sorority gathering that was held from Sept. 13-16 in New Orleans, placing expenses for the trip on the school district’s credit card.

This meeting – referred to simply as a “sorority trip” by four of McDaniel’s fellow board members in an Oct. 3 letter demanding her resignation (for what they termed a “breach of public trust”) – was actually nothing of the sort.

Instead of girlfriend get-together, this sorority trip was a National Education Symposium designed to “convene individuals with a vested interest in the education of African-American students for designing replicable strategies for the empowerment of African-American students, parents and community groups.” As such, it featured two accomplished African-American educators with a history of designing such strategies.

Not exactly ‘Animal House,’ is it?

The fact that McDaniel’s trip falls into the category of “professional development” (as opposed to some girls’ gigglefest in the Big Easy) is fairly self-evident, and a review of Fairfield School District policy indicates McDaniel was clearly within her rights not only in taking the trip – but in using taxpayer resources to do so.

After all, given that Fairfield students (80% of whom are African-American) are currently averaging an abysmal 786 on the SAT, you’d think the school district would be encouraging someone who is demonstrating intellectual curiosity in looking for new solutions. South Carolina taxpayers certainly ought to be encouraging that kind of thinking, seeing as we are currently investing $50.6 million in the district (or $13,777 per child) to produce such substandard results.

For her part, McDaniel has been particularly vocal at school board meetings in demanding better from the district and its Superintendent, Dr. Samantha Ingram.

“I’ve been vocal about the number of children not passing,” McDaniel told FITSNews. “I suppose I did put the Superintendent on the spot at some recent board meetings, but I thought they were simple questions. I didn’t mean her any harm.”

When the relationship between the two women soured as a result of the public questioning, McDaniel says she offered to discuss her concerns with Ingram in private to prevent any embarassment in front of the board, but that the Superintendent remained hostile, even refusing to provide McDaniel with advance copies of the agenda for a recent school board meeting.

“She doesn’t want to be questioned,” McDaniel said, “much less challenged.”

Sadly, it appears McDaniel’s efforts to hold Ingram’s feet to the fire resulted in the hatching of an elaborate plot to oust McDaniel from her position as Chairwoman – not to mention shortcircuit her potential candidacy for a seat in the S.C. General Assembly before a campaign could even get off the ground.

Sources tell FITSNews (and McDaniel confirms) that it was actually Dr. Ingram who first proposed the idea that McDaniel receive a district credit card, and that the Superintendent’s office (specifically district purchasing agent Eddie Nelson) was responsible for obtaining the card for McDaniel’s use. The superintendent’s office even took the additional step of putting the card in McDaniel’s name.

Neither action was ever requested by McDaniel, although four of her colleagues claimed in the Oct. 3 letter that her “asking for a district credit card and using it for personal travel constitutes serious misconduct in office”

“I never asked for a card,” McDaniel said. “I always paid my own way for things. Then all of a sudden Dr. Ingram tells me the chairman should have a card and so they send me one with my name on it and tell me to start using it. I took her (Ingram) at face value. I was too trusting.”

Even more revealing is the fact that Dr. Ingram and several other board members were originally scheduled to join McDaniel on the New Orleans trip, but cancelled at the last minute.

“It’s awful,” S.C. Democratic Rep. Leon Howard, Chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said of the set-up and smear campaign directed against McDaniel. “They’ve gone to great lengths to try and discredit her.”

Have they ever.

After the story broke, McDaniel was also assailed by four of her colleagues for “discrediting the entire school board” by allegedly prohibiting them from discussing the details of her New Orleans trip in public.

“Despite school board members’ attempts to discuss these matters legally, on the record, you, as chair, forced us into a private off-the-record conversation,” reads their Oct. 3 letter.

Of course, the truth is that McDaniel was in the process of publicly thanking the board for the opportunity to take the New Orleans trip when the plot against her was sprung. Additionally, the vote to move discussion of the matter into executive session was 6-0, meaning that all of the board members who criticized McDaniel for “embarassing” them also voted to keep the meeting’s discussions private.

Speaking of keeping things private, Dr. Ingram did not return repeated phone calls from FITSNews seeking comment for this story.

Neither did a District spokesman.

Also unavailable for comment was board member Rebecca McSwain, who sources tell us is the ringleader of the effort to oust McDaniel.

McSwain has insisted in interviews with other news outlets that McDaniel’s trip violated district policy, but she cites policy that applies to paid district employees, not unpaid board members. No one has yet to produce any tangible evidence that McDaniel acted in a manner inconsistent with district rules.

In fact, district regulations specifically encourage professional development trips like the one McDaniel took, and provide funding for them in the district budget.

Rep. Howard says he’s sure the attack on McDaniel is politically-motivated, citing the fact that an African-American hasn’t held the legislative seat she is rumored to be seeking in over a century, since 1890.

“This is to keep her from running for the House seat,” Howard says. “Which is awful. Annie’s very opinionated, but you don’t destroy a person just because you disagree with them. She’s got a lot of character and has always erred on the side of caution. She’s an honest person. She wouldn’t do anything unscrupulous with a credit card because she wouldn’t do anything unscrupulous to begin with.”

The next chapter in Annie McDaniel’s saga is scheduled to take place in Fairfield tomorrow, which is the deadline set by McSwain and her fellow board members for McDaniel to submit her resignation as Chairman. They are also demanding that she reimburse the district for the trip and publicly apologize for her actions.

Hogwash.

We think the rest of the board (along with the administration of the Fairfield County School District) are the ones who should be doing the apologizing – first for producing such an outrageously-expensive and woefully-underperforming school system, and second for their shameful attempts to silence somebody who’s trying to change it.