After several months of constituents and parents demanding financial transparency and accountability in Richland County School District One, the school board chairman was fined by the South Carolina State Ethics Commission (SCSEC).
In Tuesday night’s board of school commissioner’s meeting, chairman Jamie Devine disclosed that he was fined by the SCSEC for voting on an EngenuitySC contract in August 2018 while his wife served on its board, as the Post and Courier first reported.
He said this after board member Beatrice King disclosed that she had also paid a $700 fine after turning herself in with the SCSEC for voting on a Prisma Health contract. Her husband is a board member at Prisma.
Devine told FITSNews he paid a $1000 fine after receiving a written warning. He said SCSEC’s ruling was a “contrary to what we have always been advised regarding recusal when it comes to entities in which there is no economic interest,” but said that he and his wife have “taken the appropriate steps to ensure this type of violation will not occur again.”
King and Devine often vote against each other during board meetings. King has questioned Devine on several matters of fiscal responsibility (see the $700 jacketgate scandal, for example). In the last two years, King and Devine have also gone head-to-head over EngenuitySC’s contract.
Since 2013, Richland One has paid EngenuitySC — a non-profit with one of the most powerful boards in Columbia — more than $3.3 million, according to financial records.
Tameika Isaac Devine, chairman Devine’s wife who is also a Columbia city councilwoman, was a board member for EngenuitySC from 2010-2019. It is not known when in 2019 she left her position on the board of directors.
A complaint filed in June with the SCSEC said Devine voted to award EngenuitySC a contract for $550,000 in August 2018 while his wife was still a board member for EngenuitySC. Devine said this was the third time he had voted on that contract and the issue “had never been raised in three years.”Complaint-1
“Mr. Devine has a direct conflict of interest and should not have voted because he sits on the Richland One School Board and his wife is on the EngenuitySC Board of Directors,” the complaint filed by Julie Latham said. “By him voting yes to this contract, a company that his wife is directly associated with, has benefited financially.”
According to online financial records, EngenuitySC’s for-profit management company Sagacious Partners LLC has donated more than $1500 to Tameika Issac Devine’s Columbia City Council campaigns. This was not mentioned in the complaint.
In 2017, $745,917 — 73 percent of EngenuitySC’s expenses — was given to Sagacious Partners LLC for “management services.”
In 2018, EngenuitySC devoted 68.8 percent of its total expenses of $1,189,472 to its non-profit services, according to a 2018 990 tax form (the most recent available online). In that year, the non-profit paid Sagacious Partners LLC $620,333.
Where it started
The complaint contains meeting minutes from August 2018 when Devine “chose to blatantly disregard the rules and voted” to award EngenuitySC the contract.
On Aug. 26, 2019, Jamie Devine’s attorney responded to the ethics complaint and admitted that Tameika Issac Devine (Jamie’s wife) was still serving on the EngenuitySC board. However, the letter said that Jamie Devine had no duty to recuse himself when neither him nor his wife had an economic interest in EngenuitySC.Response-from-Respondent-Attorney-082619
The next day, on Aug. 27, 2019, Devine voted again to extend EngenuitySC’s $550,000 contract for another year, according to meeting minutes.
According to the August 2019 meeting minutes, Jamie Devine’s wife was never mentioned in this meeting, but board member Beatrice King brought up several issues with EngenuitySC’s contract:
- Richland One commissioner Cheryl Harris serves on EngenuitySC’s board and she didn’t recuse herself from voting on the contract (this has not been officially addressed by the ethics commission). Harris responded by questioning King about the Prisma vote she later turned herself in for (as mentioned above).
- In 2017, roughly 64 percent of EngenuitySC’s expenses went to programs within the non-profit — while $745,917 of that year’s expenses went to EngenuitySC’s for-profit partner Sagacious Partners LLC.
- She said it’s “difficult to approve a contract of that magnitude” with so little to “justify the amount with evidence of measurables.”
- She asked: Why do we need to pay an organization around $230 an hour to do services that teachers do for much less?
- She asked: Why does the district need to pay $550,000 a year to a non profit to help with accreditation — which should be achieved by district staff?
- She said the district is in a budget crunch and while funding EngenuitySC made sense at the beginning when it was paid for by federal grants, it no long makes sense.
Devine called King’s line of questioning “micromanagement.”
Before King made these points, she asked to delay the approval, which was seconded by board member Darrell Black.
The seconded motion was loud and clear, yet Devine — appearing to be in a hurry to pass the motion to approve the $550,000 contract — claimed to not hear it.
This started a heated debate between King and Devine and eventually the board approved the contract.
In his response Wednesday, Devine did not mention the 2019 vote.
What we know about EngenuitySC
Executive Director Meghan Hickman told FITSNews that EngenuitySC manages projects and initiatives in the district and serves 2600-2700 students of Richland One’s 22,900 student population per year.
“A sampling of our programs and projects includes initiatives such as mentorship and interview training, career skills and business protocol training, entrepreneurship workshops, Girls and Boys Conference programs, field studies to local employers (particularly in science and technology fields), college discovery studies, creation of club programs at the elementary and middle school level, parent university sessions, launching the first ever District Rubik’s Speedcubing League, and Teacher Discovery Days,” Hickman told FITSNews.
This year, EngenuitySC estimated it would spend about $254,624 of the $550,000 from Richland One on staffing costs. Asked how many people would this employ, Hickman didn’t specify, but said more than 10,000 hours of staff time have gone to Richland One.
Hickman made sure to point out that $550,000 was just a fraction of ‘Richland One’s total budget.
Including this year’s contract, Richland One has paid EngenuitySC $3,232,500 since 2013,” she said “To put that number into context, EngenuitySC’s $550,000 contract for July 2019 through June 2020 will total 1/625th (or 0.16%) of the District’s total $337,458,642 budget for the fiscal year, and across EngenuitySC’s seven-year partnership with Richland One, dollars paid to the organization total 1/714th (or 0.14%) of the District’s seven-year budget of $2.3 billion dollars.”
Hickman, the Executive Director at EngenuitySC, also works as the Chief Operating Officer at Sagacious Partners LLC – the company that was paid more than $600,000 by EngenuitySC for management purposes, according to a 2018 990 form.
On the 990 form, Hickman wrote that she worked 37.5 hours per week at EngenuitySC — but made $0 doing so.
Asked about Hickman’s salary, Lee Bussell, EngenuitySC chair, said the following:
“Meghan Hickman serves as Executive Director for EngenuitySC as part of the organization’s fixed-price management contract with Sagacious Partner,” he said. She is not a salaried employee of EngenuitySC. She is contractually guaranteed and paid by EngenuitySC for 65% of her time, but her time devoted to EngenuitySC has averaged 79% in the past two fiscal years, FY 2017-2018 and 2018-2019. What this means is that EngenuitySC and its clients, including Richland One, are benefiting from pro-bono time that Hickman provides to EngenuitySC out of a sense of commitment to the community.”
Asked if she would disclose her salary, Hickman did not reply.
Richland One Problems
Things appear to be going from bad to worse at the Richland County School District One — especially in the last seven days.
Since we published our investigative story on excessive spending and lack of transparency problems at Richland County School District One last month, The State and The Post and Courier newspapers have written several stories on the district’s questionable contracts and increasing expenses outside of the classroom.
On Thursday, Richland One Superintendent Craig Witherspoon sent an email to teachers in the district that highlighted some debatable district progress (such as test scores and the graduation rate) and essentially bashed the media for recent bad press at Richland One.
On that same day, Linda Pratt, former principal of Carver-Lyon Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina, is suing the Richland County School District One for gender discrimination, race discrimination, and other claims.
On Friday, Richland One officials announced they will be suspending play at the AC Flora turf field in Columbia, South Carolina for the next two weeks “while the field is addressed.” It’s the third time in less than a year they’ve shut down the athletic field that was built in 2017.
FITSNews will continue to report on the many issues facing the Richland One School District . You can submit your information through our tip line or by sending emails to our founding editor Will Folks ([email protected]) and to our news director Mandy Matney ([email protected]) – preferably using the subject header “Midlands Accountability Project.”
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 story ideas, comments, suggestions and tips to [email protected].