In an online petition, a student who is “disgusted” with the management of funds and leadership at Richland County School District One is calling for two officials to resign.
The change.org petition written by an anonymous “concerned student” asks for superintendent Craig Witherspoon and school board chairman Jamie Devine to step down, for the public to have an input in the Richland One fiscal budget, and for high school students to have a seat on the school board.
“All of these decisions are being made without addressing our needs, because you don’t know what they are,” the student wrote. “The Board of Commissioners is here to serve the students, and it’s quite obvious that is not the case.”
As of noon Sunday, the petition already had 75 signatures.
“As a student that walks the halls of a Richland One school, the frivolous spending and the lack of correct allocation of funding is abundantly clear,” the petition said.
The very detailed petition lays out a long list of grievances with the Richland One school district, beginning with official’s hiring of Witherspoon in 2015.
To understand the deep divide between many Richland One parents, constituents and several board members, we need to go back to 2015 when Superintendent Craig Witherspoon was hired.
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 board.
Parents were concerned with Witherspoon’s record from the beginning and voiced their opinions with the board, who went ahead and hired him anyway.
“After being hired by Richland One, fresh criticisms arose: this time from this district,” the petition said.
In 2016, Witherspoon missed a Title 1 federal funding deadline that cost the district at least $3.1 million. Parents asked him to resign over the error, The State newspaper reported at the time.
Financial responsibility (or a lack thereof) has been the primary focus of Richland One voters who have criticized the district — and the concerned student noted this in great detail. Parents (and now apparently students, too) believe too much money is being spent outside of the classroom.
“In a well-led district, the fiscal problems would have been minimal, maybe even non-existent,” the student wrote in the petition. “However, this is not the case.”
The mounting hostility — which has been rising for several years — came to a head in January in an incident some call “JacketGate,” when one board member exposed that the district spent $700 on seven jackets for school board members. The $700 purchase infuriated several parents who spoke to FITSNews. They saw it as a “symbolic move” indicative of the board’s fiscal irresponsibility.
“While the school board can match in their $700 jackets, many of my teachers are paying for classroom supplies out of their own pocket,” the student wrote in the petition. The bathrooms are horrendously understocked and many times they’re not clean. While the arts teachers are struggling with fundraisers so they can do their jobs, the Board of Commissioners sit back and enjoy their thrones made of gold and their palace of diamond.”
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 financial documents.
“Another symbolic gesture was the re-mulching and adding of palm trees to Hand Middle School, while the bathrooms still had shiny metal for mirrors,” the student wrote.
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
- $4,455 at Halls Restaurant and Catering.
As these spending items multiply, test scores and enrollment numbers are dropping in many clusters across the district — which is the fifth-largest in the state and has an annual budget of $337,458,642 in its efforts to educate 22,000 students in the greater Columbia, South Carolina area.
Aside from financial issues, the Richland 1 school board has been accused of awarding major contracts to businesses connected to board members.
In February, we reported that chairman Devine was fined by the SCSEC for voting on an EngenuitySC contract in August 2018 while his wife served on its board.
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.
According to online financial records, EngenuitySC’s for-profit management company Sagacious Partners LLC has donated more than $1,500 to Tameika Issac Devine’s Columbia City Council campaigns.
Board member Beatrice King also paid a $700 fine after turning herself in with the SCSEC this year for voting on a Prisma Health contract. Her husband is a board member at Prisma.
In a recent board meeting, commissioner Jonathan Milling and King both raised questions about why Devine’s wife’s law firm received significant more money for bond work than other firms hired in recent years by the district, the State Newspaper previously reported.
Columbia-area business owner Lasenta Lewis-Ellis‘ board connections are another example of what many sources —including the student writing the petition —see as an example of inappropriate contract awards.
Lewis-Ellis’ company LLE Construction Group managed construction and renovations for eight stadiums/ fields in the district — including the AC Flora field, which had to be shut down again this year due to safety reasons. It is not known what specifically LLE Construction Group’s role was with the field, aside from project management.
According to her company’s website, Lewis-Ellis is connected to Chairman Devine’s Wife Tameika Isaac Devine and has partnered with her on an entrepreneur camp for girls.
Lewis-Ellis is also the owner of Need-A-Lift transportation company — a company that was paid $105,457 in the last fiscal school year, according to Richland County School District 1 records. Those records say the company was paid for “homeschool transportation” and “activity trips.” Back in January, we tried calling the 803-400-2105 phone number listed on needalisftsc.com, but it was not in service.
Lewis-Ellis also is a board member of the Engenuity program.
“The football players at Flora couldn’t play on their field for several months, but it’s all okay, because we get to induct people into a hall of fame that totally isn’t accruing a massive net loss,” the petition said. “I know the district is more worried about our image than our kids, but I personally am sick of the lack of concern for America’s future.”
Social Justice Comments
The student petitioner also took issue with comments that were recently made at a board meeting in early July, exclusively reported by FITSNews.
More than three hours into the meeting — which focused on the school district’s options for reopening school in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic — board members addressed the final agenda item labeled “social justice.”
For the next hour, board member Cheryl Harris and several other school board commissioners shared their grievances about what they see as racially motivated attacks on black leadership at Richland One.
However, the remarks from chairman Jamie Devine, at the very end of the long meeting, drew the most intense backlash.
“There’s an attack on black leadership in this state and as well in this school district,” Devine said.”…There are certain people who don’t want to see black leadership do well.”
Then, more than four hours into the meeting, Devine dropped what some considered to be a bombshell statement before the conclusion of the meeting.
“There is something brewing out here, we need to be prepared for that when and if schools open because there is an undercurrent in this community and it’s about to explode,” Devine said. “There is going to be some people who will get caught in the crossfire and when they do, and all I can tell you, is you better hold on.”
The student wrote in the petitoin that this was an example of Devine taking “advantage of the Black Lives Matter movement in order to set up a smokescreen for corruption.”
“Chairman Devine making a vague threat to (rightful) critics of the school board and the Superintendent, as well as using phrases like “trust us”, “don’t question us”, and “about to get caught in the crossfire”, is not productive to the movement nor are they appropriate comments to make for someone with an office such as his,” the petitioner wrote.
Devine is up for re-election this November.
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 [email protected].
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