Since we published our investigative story on excessive spending and leadership problems at Richland County School District One in January, the school district has seen a flood of bad press throughout the year.
A few of those headlines exposing major issues in the large Columbia-area school district include:
- Richland One Chairman’s Ethics Violation Cost Taxpayers $14,000
- 5-Year-Old Richland One Student Frequently Sexually Assaulted On School Bus, Lawsuit Says
- Petition Calls For Richland One Superintendent And School Board Chairman To Resign
- Richland One Teacher Accused Of Snorting Drugs In Front Of Class
- Richland One Reopening Problems: 170 Teacher Vacancies And Communication Issues
- SC School District Accused Of Lavish Spending Recorded $20K Loss On Tax-Funded Black-Tie Event
Despite the problems in Richland One this year, Superintendent Craig Witherspoon received an “exemplary” rating on his evaluation, Richland One officials said in Tuesday’s board meeting.
A mysterious “third-party” helped the school board evaluate Witherspoon’s performance and concluded he actually improved from last year when he was “adequate.”
The State Newspaper first reported on this — and did not address basic questions of this “evaluation.”
Why is a third-party evaluating the superintendent? Isn’t that what the school board is there for?
Why didn’t board members disclose who the third party was?
What exactly was Witherspoon evaluated on? What rubric was used?
In the meeting, chairman Jamie Devine said that Witherspoon was “exemplary” in areas such as:
- his relationship with the board,
- community relations,
- staff and personal relations,
- educational leadership,
- business and finance,
- personal and professional actions.
Academics were not at all mentioned as a part of the superintendent’s performance evaluation (we will get to that later).
In the meeting, Richland One commissioner Beatrice King appeared to be the only board member concerned about the third-party involvement in the evaluation.
Commissioner Cheryl Harris said that the board voted on this, but couldn’t remember when it was. King said she couldn’t recall ever voting on the third-party evaluation.
King also asked how much money the third party was paid for this evaluation and that question was never clearly answered.
The board voted to approve Witherspoon’s evaluation — with King being the only member to vote against it.
Also, the board voted to extend Witherspoon’s contract through 2024 — again, with King voting “no” alone.
Following the meeting, FITSNews reached out to communications manager Karen York with questions about Witherspoon’s evaluation. As of Monday, York had not responded to our questions.
There are a number of issues with Witherspoon’s evaluation — including the way the State reported on it.
“While unpopular with some parents for presiding over budget issues and soaring advertising spending, Witherspoon led Richland 1 as it posted the highest graduation rate in district history for two years in a row and the first Richland 1 football state championship in decades,” Lucas Daprile of The State wrote.
What exactly did the superintendent’s job have to do with A.C. Flora’s football championship? We’re not sure..
We are sure, however, that Richland One has a lot more problems that deserve a lot more coverage…
Richland One is currently suffering one of the worst teacher shortages in the state. Enrollment numbers are declining — the district has lost more than 1,500 students in the last year.
The district has been sued in at least 10 lawsuits this year for various employee and student issues. For comparison, Richland Two has been sued one time this year.
Richland One spends more per pupil than a majority of school districts in South Carolina. In the 2020-2021 school year, it spent $21,160 per pupil which is significantly higher than the state’s average at $14,801.
Spending at Richland One has dramatically increased in the past five years — going up steadily from $18,155 five years ago.
As spending has increased at Richland One, test scores have dropped.
It’s difficult to determine the district’s academic performance this year due to COVID-19 school closures and testing cancellations.
However, we can look at things like ACT scores from 2020 to get a sense of how the district is doing. Only 11 percent of students met the ACT college-ready benchmarks for all four subjects.
We can also look at end-of-course exams from previous years to see trends.
See a trend?
Now, for those graduation rates the State reported on…
Graduation rates are a somewhat controversial metric to determine academic success because school districts can alter their methods to allow more students to graduate, and if so many students students aren’t ready for college or careers, how useful are graduation rates?
Anyway, if we want to talk about graduation rates, Richland One saw its graduation rate clock in at 82.9 percent in 2020 – up 4 percentage points from three years ago.
But what Witherspoon and other district officials (and the State Newspaper, apparently) don’t want to talk about is that there are major gaps within Richland One schools between the best and worst.
A.C. Flora high school boasted a 90.6 percent graduation rate – up 3.3 percentage points over three years. That was a whopping 19.9 percentage points better than C.A. Johnson high school, which saw its graduation rate clock in at 70.7 percent – a 1.3 percentage point decline from three years ago.
Also, while Richland One’s graduation rates have improved, both are below other large Midlands school districts.
The Richland One school board has been accused of awarding major contracts to businesses connected to board members.
Parents and taxpayers are concerned that this mysterious “third party” vendor that evaluated Witherspoon is another case of Richland One inappropriately awarding contracts to benefit school board members.
In Tuesday night’s meeting, Richland One officials only said that “attorneys” were involved in the evaluation process, but didn’t say which law firm.
We would certainly hope it is not a law firm that could possibly benefit from the evaluation — like the law firm that was hired to take care of Devine’s ethics complaint violation, and ended up billing taxpayers $13,991 for 117 hours of legal work, for instance.
Witherspoon has been a controversial figure in ever since he was hired in 2015.
Parents were concerned with Witherspoon’s record from the beginning and voiced their opinions with the board, who went ahead and hired him anyway.
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.
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.
He makes more than $230,000 a year — more than $70,000 more than the average superintendent salary, The State reported. His salary will stay the same.
Also in the meeting, board members voted commmisioner Aaron Bishop as the new school board chair and Cheryl Harris as the vice chair.
Richland One also cut its live feed during the public comment part of the meeting Tuesday — which is against the law, the Post and Courier reported.
We will be filing Freedom Of Information Act Requests to get more answers on this story.
Editor’s note: this article is a news analysis by Mandy Matney, who has been covering the Richland One school district since January.
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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