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SC School District Accused Of Lavish Spending Recorded $20K Loss On Tax-Funded Black-Tie Event

The red carpet alone cost taxpayers more than $1,400.

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Richland One Hall of Fame

Just two days after we published our investigative story on “lavish” spending and lack of transparency at Richland County School District One, the district held a red-carpet event that recorded a net loss of at least $20,937.12 in tax dollars, according to recently released documents.

Officials recently released all the financial documents related to the Richland One Hall of Fame Induction Gala held Feb. 2 in Columbia, South Carolina after a parent filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

But the financial documents contained several discrepancies — which raised even more concerns for parents like Flynn Bowie who have pushing for fiscal transparency and accountability for the last year.

“If Richland One cannot be trusted to accurately track and report $50,000 for their Gala, why should they be trusted to track and report $340,000,000 in the annual budget?” Bowie said.

The black-tie event honoring those “who have made significant contributions to Richland County School District One… or to society as a whole” is one of many examples of what parents are calling “lavish spending” by district officials.

According to the State newspaper, Richland One lost a total of $125,674 on the gala event from 2013 to 2019. With the exception of one year when they netted around $6,600 from the gala, the district lost between $21,000 and $44,000 from other years, according to The State’s analysis. 

Last year, the district recorded a total net loss of $42,178.10 from the Hall of Fame Induction Gala, as we previously reported.

But this year’s gala was held at a time when tensions were high between parents and district officials. The fact that the district still reported a net loss that could cover half a teacher’s salary — while they knew their spending was being closely monitored — isn’t sitting well with parents.

It tells me that they’re totally out of sync with parents concerned about their children and teachers in the district who don’t have sufficient classroom resources to perform their jobs effectively,” Bowie said.

Errors in the reports

After Bowie filed a FOIA request for “all financial documentation” on the event, district attorney Susan Williams did not include advertising costs for the event in the response.

After FITSNews brought this to Executive Director of Communications Karen York‘s attention, York sent a “final closeout” document that included the following costs:

  • $2,632.80 – City of Columbia water bill insert ad.
  • $80 – Facebook ad.
  • $800 – Millenium magazine ad.

York noted they also received ads from WIS TV, Lamar Advertising and Grace Outdoor Advertising at no cost for the district.

However, in January alone, the district spent $33,817 on general advertising, which includes:

  • $13,216 to Lamar Advertising.
  • $7,800.00 to Grace Outdoor Advertising.
  • $6,435.00 to WIS TV.

WIS TV was a “gold member” at the gala, meaning they donated between $5,000 and $9,999. From November through January, the district has paid WIS TV $21,075 for advertising.

Advertising wasn’t the only error in these original FOIA documents.

On the first page, the expenditures total was at $54,304.32 on first mention, then at $52,304.32 on second mention. This error was never explained by officials when we asked about it.

According to the initial reports, the event sold less than 400 ticketed seats. The financial summary on the first page said they made $20,905 in ticket sales, while the another page has the total of ticket sales amounting to $38,845.

When we asked about this, district spokesperson Karen York said she wasn’t sure who put together the summary (above) that was released through a FOIA request. She emailed FITSNews a “final close out” document, which is below.

The difference in the documents is about a $6,000 — with taxpayers footing the bill. Had we not questioned the documents, it would have looked like they lost $14K on the event.

The Gala

York said both students and community members are recognized at the event, which is included in the office of communications’ budget.

“We consider holding the gala as an investment in recognizing individuals who have given back to the district over the years and serve as an inspiration to our current students,” York told FITSNews when asked how the event benefits students.

She said Richland One’s foundation used to sponsor the Hall of Fame Induction Gala when it was first established in 2004 and for several years after that. When the Richland One foundation dissolved, the district took over the gala, the All-Stars Recognition Banquet and the teacher grants program.

“Efforts are underway by a group of district graduates and other Richland One supporters to establish a new foundation which would sponsor those three programs and launch new programs and initiatives through soliciting major corporate donations and identifying other funding sources,” York said. “We look forward to continuing to hold the gala until the foundation takes it over.”

Lavish Spending

A corporate event planner told FITSNews that it’s very rare in the non-profit world to lose a large amount of money on the same event, year after year.

“If you’re constantly operating at a loss, you have to reconsider what you’re doing, especially when you’re dealing with public funds,” she told FITSNews.

After reviewing the financial documents, the event planner said it would be easy to hold a high-quality event and at least break even with their revenue of around $38,000.

Richland One spent $4,700 for just the entertainment (band, DJ, and vocalist).

$4,700 is a lot to spend on entertainment,” she said. “If the point was to recognize the award winners, why spend so much on the entertainment?”

The event planner found several other expensive items that weren’t necessary.

Richland One spent $2,811 on the decor for the red-carpet entrance of the gala (more than $1,400 on the red carpet alone), for example.

The district spent $1,475 on valet parking at the event held at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, which has more than 260 parking spaces.

Richland 1 Spending Problems

In January, mounting tensions between Richland One officials and parents came to a head after a board member exposed that the district spent $700 on seven jackets for the school board. The $700 purchase infuriated several parents who spoke to FITSNews. They saw it as a “symbolic move” indicative of the board’s fiscal irresponsibility.

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. 

Back in January, parents told us they were angry after seeing more money in the district spent on unmeasurable programs such as “Irly Bird” and “Engenuity SC,” poorly managed multi-million dollar projects like the athletic fields, and “lavish” spending on food and other items that they say do not benefit the children of the district. 

In reviewing the District’s massive expenditure list for fiscal year 2019, several items stick out just on the food section:

  • $50,114 at Chick-Fil-A
  • $26,291 at Jason’s Deli
  • $23,644 at Honey Baked Ham
  • $4,845 at Hudson’s Smokehouse
  • $1,974 at Disney Destination LLC
  • $2,298 at Doc’s Restaurant LLC
  • $1,909 at Golden Corral
  • $4455 at Halls Restaurant and Catering.

In the next week, FITSNews will be taking a closer look at Richland One’s financial reports and credit card spending . Stay tuned..

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.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an award-winning 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. Want to contact Mandy? Send your story ideas, comments, suggestions and tips to [email protected].

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