Since we published our investigative story on excessive spending and lack of transparency problems at Richland County School District One last month, the district has seen a flood of bad press from The State and The Post and Courier newspapers.
Here are some of those headlines:
- No-bid contracts for $500,000 in science programming draw scrutiny to SC school district (Post and Courier)
- In five years, Richland 1’s advertising spending has increased 5,500 percent (The State)
- SC school district hired chairman’s wife for ‘complex’ legal work outside her primary field (The Post and Courier)
- Richland 1’s ‘jacketgate’ controversy underscores parents’ frustrations with spending (This was published on The State’s website just a few hours after we published our story with a very similar headline — “$100 Jackets For Richland 1 School Board Members ‘Symbolic’ Of Lavish District Spending, Parents Say”)
On Thursday, several of our Richland One sources forwarded us an email we were told was sent to teachers, but is addressed to “Richland One Colleagues” from Superintendent Craig Witherspoon. In the email, Witherspoon boasted about district accomplishments and essentially bashed the media for the way they’ve covered the district recently.
He opened the letter by thanking teachers for their hard work, then gave a recap of his State of the District Address from last week and highlighted some of his/ the district’s accomplishments.
Witherspoon pointed out that Richland One’s graduation rate at 82.2 percent is the district’s “highest ever.” However, it’s just above the statewide rate (81.1 percent) and below the national level (84.6 percent). For comparison, Richland Two’s graduation rate was at 88.9 percent in 2019.
“The graduation rate may be 82 percent, but the ACT is actually a leading indicator of college readiness and career success,” a Richland One parent told FITSNews. “Our district scores are abysmal. How can you graduate kids who are not college or career ready? I mean not ready for a factory job, or Target, let alone college.”
Witherspoon highlighted other test score improvements he considered to be accomplishments. He said the End of Course (EOC) Algebra 1 exams passage rate increased 5 percent in the last year.
But take a look at the last five years prior — according to Richland One’s data, the Algebra 1 score in 2018 is actually 28 percent lower than it was in 2014.
Several schools are still well below average and showed little improvement in the last year.
In his email, Witherspoon also highlighted AP test scores increasing from 55.4 percent in 2018 to 58.1 percent in 2019.
But again, not all schools showed improvement — with five schools passing less than 16 percent of their AP exams. He didn’t mention that part.
“Those gains are the result of the collaborative, strategic and sustained efforts of our teachers, administrators and support staff,” he said.
Witherspoon did not mention ACT scores. Five of the seven Richland One high schools averaged around 15 — well below the national average of 20.7.
Next, Witherspoon attacked the reporting in recent newspaper articles, saying that the district “provided extensive information to both media outlets upon their requests, only a fraction of that information was included in the articles and the information presented was skewed.” He continued:
“Hall of Fame Induction Gala – The Richland One Hall of Fame Induction Gala has been held for 16 years. Previously there was a foundation that supported the event. When that foundation ceased its operations, the district saw the need to continue the event. The gala is not considered to be a “loss” but a continued investment in community engagement and recognition of the contributions of district graduates and others who have been associated with Richland One. Another foundation is being formed that will take over the sponsorship of the Hall of Fame Induction Gala, teacher grants and support of various student activities as well. We appreciate the work of the Richland One alumni and community supporters who are involved in this effort.”
Before The State ran its story on the gala, we reported that parents were calling the event an example of “lavish spending.” The district budgeted $75,399.88 for its annual Hall of Fame Induction Gala two years ago. Gross revenues from the gala only totaled $33,221.78, according to records. That’s a net loss of $42,178.10.
Here’s a look at the revenue and loss from last year’s gala:
Next up on Witherspoon’s letter, he defends the 5,500% increase in advertising spending since his arrival, as reported by the State newspaper.
“Advertising – Over the past few years, Richland One has made a concerted effort to communicate more with our parents and those who live in our footprint who may or may not have students in our schools. We also have added several programs that we promote through advertising. This is good thing and is considered an investment. That said, three years ago, we received a $15 million magnet schools grant. Some of the federal grant funds have gone to advertising for those programs. In addition, a few years ago, advertising that had been done by individual schools and departments across the district (e.g., Human Resource Services, Early Childhood, Montessori and others) was moved to the Office of Communications instead of the various locations. Regardless, sharing the good news about the successes and accomplishments of the district is worth the investment. None of our students have been shorted any resources or services nor have any resources to classrooms been lessened because of these efforts. Advertising and marketing are needed given the highly competitive nature of education today. Other districts do it, as well as private and parochial schools. Again, we are very proud of our successes and what we do to communicate and promote the district and to aid in recruiting students and staff will continue to be needed.”
And then, he brought up the controversial Irly Bird program we first reported about in January and that was followed up by a more in-depth Post and Courier story.
To recap, the program costs the district more than $250,000 annually and has raised eyebrows across Richland One since it was first introduced in fiscal year 2019. In the last fiscal year, the district spent $287,280 on the program — more than $39,000 over budget.
It’s also published locally. After we published in January that the books were not STEM accredited, we confirmed that the author then applied for accreditation within a week after our story ran.
The Post and Courier reported that local districts don’t have strict procurement laws like they do at the state level and contracts like Irly Bird don’t have to undergo a public bidding process.
In response, Witherspoon said:
Program/Vendor Selection – The district has followed and continues to follow procurement procedures – plain and simple. There are instructional products and services, such as professional development, that do not have to be bid. A recent example of this is the Irly Bird program. Staff evaluated the entire program – books, STEM lab and live production – as a package. There were no other packages such as this available. As for the retail cost for the books, discounts were given for other aspects of the program. This flexibility is commonly negotiated. Moreover, the feedback from staff, students and parents has been mostly positive. We understand that when products and services are selected, there are always different perceptions about whether they are the best or the most appropriate. However, it is disheartening when it is insinuated that procurement guidelines have not been followed. For those of you who feel that your professional expertise or even your integrity may have been called into question because of your advocacy for this program and maybe even others, I am sincerely sorry.
Check out their contract:
But Witherspoon said the district doesn’t have a problem with scrutiny and they “don’t run from it.’
“However, it’s important to note that while there may be a difference of opinion, such as whether to implement a particular program, a difference of opinion does not mean that something has been done inappropriately or irresponsibly, as some seem to be intent on making it appear,” he wrote.
To recap on Witherspoon’s background:
- He missed a Title 1 federal funding deadline that cost the district at least $3.1 million.
- Witherspoon’s controversial past as the former superintendent of the Birmingham School District in Alabama troubled parents when he was hired in 2015.
- School board members in Birmingham tried to fire him twice before he resigned in 2012, The Birmingham News reported.
- He reportedly left the district “in shambles” and the state had to take over the district’s “fiscal controls.”
- He makes $229,582 a year — roughly $70,000 more than the average superintendent salary, The Greenville News reported.
Finally, the letter concluded with a call-to-action that didn’t sit well with the parents we spoke to.
“In addition to the articles that have been published, we understand that other articles are in the works and may come out soon,” he wrote.
And he’s right about that. At FITSNews, we are working on several stories on the fifth-largest district in the state that has an annual budget of more than $337 million. That’s our job.
“What can we do about that?” he wrote to Richland One staff members about the bad press.
Witherspoon then suggested that Richland One staff can help this image problem by telling “the real Richland One story and consistently share information with our parents, community members, the news media and others about all the great things we have happening in our district.”
Several Richland One parents — who have been fighting for fiscal transparency for months — told FITSNews that the letter represents the same problems as the Jacket Gate Scandal (when the district spent $700 in public funds on seven jackets for school board members).
“Crisis management at its worst,” said a Richland One parent about the letter. “Now people will start looking when most were not paying attention.”
“It’s never good when you have to tell your employees how to respond to scrutiny,” another Richland One parent told FITSNews.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR..
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an investigative journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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