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Guest Column: Unfounded CRT Censure

“These are the facts …”

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by REBECCA BLACKBURN HINES

On Monday, July 10, 2023, under a shroud of secrecy and misinformation, the recently elected leadership of the Lexington County GOP “voted” to censure the board chair of School District 5 of Lexington and Richland Counties. This resolution to censure was presented without notice to the board chair and the majority of county party membership, or presented on the meeting agenda. A straight up-or-down vote was called, without the opportunity for discussion, at a meeting with a large number of members not present due to the timing of the meeting with many absent due to vacations or work-related conferences. In fact, the meeting was purported to be an ice cream social with very limited official business since it was a summer meeting.

As the “censure” was presented riddled with inaccuracies and without any reasonable attempt to confirm actual facts, is directly focused on me, I am compelled to respond in a public forum. It is well established that I do not typically engage on the disaster of unproductive social media bully pulpits to discuss school board issues; however, I do my best to encourage personal conversations with constituent concerns as often as possible. Ironically, I did address the issues at the center of this censure, to no avail, on my private Facebook page, as I heard the whispers of the upcoming action of the executive board, several of whom have the ability to view my page.

As written, the censure presented at the meeting alleges that I (singularly) refused to place a policy issue on a board agenda in February, never placed the issue on an agenda in March or April, and again refused to place the issue on the July 17 meeting. This is categorically false, with documented actions that demonstrate otherwise. In addition, according to a press release sent out by the Lexington County GOP – although not sent to me – I have failed to enact policy or attempt to enact disciplinary actions against a teacher.

At the heart of the current situation is the continued controversy surrounding the instruction of critical race theory (CRT) in our public K-12 schools. Over the last few years, the General Assembly has unsuccessfully attempted to pass legislation to address CRT in public schools, whether through direct instruction or under the guise of mandatory professional development for educators. Since these attempts have failed, budget provisos have been haphazardly implemented with the intent to prohibit inappropriate material from entering a school district or school using state funds. Local county GOP groups have supported banning CRT from public education in all forms, which I have always fully supported.

In February, the CRT firestorm hit District 5, when allegations surfaced of a high school teacher implementing racially divisive instructional material in an AP Language class. From my understanding, a student emailed a board member concerns that a teacher made them uncomfortable due to the way information was presented, making them feel like they should be ashamed to be Caucasian and that the lesson plan could potentially violate the related budget proviso. I was made aware of the situation when another board member forwarded an email with a parent’s concern with the lesson to the district superintendent and me, with several questions related to violation of the proviso and demands that the issue be placed on the next agenda, along with updating the applicable policy. I received one other email from a constituent, expressing similar concerns and demands.

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The response from the superintendent and the district administration indicated that they were unaware of the allegations as the complaints had been made to board members and not school officials. The superintendent requested that the district be allowed to launch an investigation and given adequate time to handle as pursuant to district policy, which is guided by provisions included within the SC Teacher Employment and Dismissal Act. There is a procedure in which all employee matters unrelated to the Superintendent’s performance must follow, and the Board’s involvement only occurs when they are needed to hold a quasi-judicial role. Unfortunately to some, this is why we are only provided limited information.  Another trustee still insisted on an agenda item to discuss this, or at least to discuss policy on supplemental material. Our agendas are set in agreement with the three board officers. At the time, the district had several time sensitive issues to address and our February agendas had been set. In addition, not as an excuse – but still a reality, I was nine months pregnant and felt that this issue was important for all trustees to be in attendance.

Regarding the matter relating to the employee, few recognize that our roles and responsibilities as Trustees are limited in a way that few other elected officials are… believe me, that can be frustrating, especially because comments are made without all the facts and we cannot address them. Legally, we cannot openly discuss employees or matters concerning specific employee situations. We are limited under policies guided by statute as to investigations and private discussions in executive sessions relating to teachers/employees/student situations. Trustees do not enact disciplinary actions against employees. These are the facts, regardless of whether I, or any other board members, agree with them. The General Assembly does not have such limitations, which appears to make it easier to distract from failing legislation and point to school boards.

Still, I strongly believe concerns relating to the instruction are extremely important, and in fact, the board had discussions relating to curriculum and supplemental materials in the classroom during the April 24th board meeting. Although there was limited participation from all board members during the discussion, a couple board members, including myself relayed opinions and concerns on how certain materials get into the classroom. At the time, it was believed that the Transparency and Integrity in Education Act would pass this year; it was indicated that we would revisit the policies once it did pass. Unfortunately, that legislation stalled.

In June, the situation escalated when a FOIA request led to a series of events which put our district in the national news – and, not in a positive light. This media attention put a renewed focus on whether an employee had been disciplined, whether a proviso was broken, and related policies. At our board meeting on June 26th, we had several concerned citizens speak at public participation. Typically, we do not respond during public participation; however, based upon several comments and my personal feelings, I asked the superintendent to add a couple policies related to controversial materials and academic freedom for discussion at our July 17th meeting in response to these concerns. Another board member made a motion to discuss several policies in a policy committee meeting prior to the next meeting on July 17th – we do not have committees, and in fact, board policy discourages them. The motion did not pass; and, I can only speak as to my vote against having a policy committee meeting. Quite frankly, I think committee meetings are a joke, which I have been vocal about from their conception a few years ago, for several reasons. Two of the biggest reasons are that they have lower rates of public viewers, in-person and on-line and history confirms that only a small minority of members are able to participate. Committee meetings may be appropriate for districts like Greenville or Charleston that have larger boards, but it is my opinion that policies should be discussed with all seven board members present with the best opportunity for the greatest viewership, transparency, and openness.

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RELATED | ‘THEY LIED TO THE PUBLIC

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Prior to this censure action, the Lexington County GOP publicly and falsely alleged that I voted against a CRT policy. I have never voted against a CRT policy. As outlined here, I have not refused to discuss these policy issues in meetings. A simple review of the April 24 meeting, the June 26 meeting, and the July 17 meeting agenda will confirm this as fact.

As a board member and as the current board chair, I take seriously my responsibility to exercise my duties as a trustee and protect and defend the Constitution. I have said many times over the last 2.5 years, process is the most important element of how I make decisions. This stands true whether I agree or disagree with a motion or topic. We have the obligation to ensure that we follow the policies, protocols and laws that govern our office and outline our duties. I will stand by this, every day, every time, even when it is not popular or in line with the opinion of others. We live in times where litigation is always peeking around the corner. I believe that we should do our best to avoid it as to protect the interests of the taxpayers; however, because the decisions I make are truly what I think is right based on the situation, I do not fear being sued, even though I recognize it may be likely to occur.

In case it still is not clear, I believe CRT does not belong in K-12 schools. There needs to be a hard line against indoctrination, and a student should never know a teacher’s political viewpoints. As I have said to many people, elected officials and private citizens, ambiguities in state law relating to these matters make it very hard to govern on a local level. They are also more likely to occur when legislation is forced through for political gain without taking adequate time to work through potential issues. Still, while I do believe we have rogue players in our schools, I also believe in due process and process in general.  There is a fine balance. We cannot be so extreme that we prohibit our children from being able to form their own thoughts and learn more than one narrative to be able to argue a point. This is why we must be smart and deliberate in how we handle these controversial issues.  The progressive and conservative extremists on both sides are terrifying to me, both as a citizen and as a mother.

I am always willing to have difficult conversations and appreciate those who are willing to help and provide feedback. However, I am not going to be bullied into taking actions without thought. Although my role in District 5 is a nonpartisan position, the local GOP has made it a partisan issue. In fact, on Saturday evening, the Lexington County GOP sent me a document, containing specific questions related to the teacher and events in regard to the recent matter, demanding that I agree to stipulations related to committees and appointing a specific board member to chair the committee, and “requiring” a response by certain date.  I have said this before: The SC Republican Creed holds that “…I will never cower before any master, save my God … It is my heritage to stand erect, proud, and unafraid.”

I live by that principle, and I am not going to handle a situation in the wrong way to get the right outcome just to be popular or to insincerely obtain votes. Even if it means that my values and beliefs are questioned, my true principles will always adhere to the process. Still, it is sad that this type of continued divide and controversy occurs within the same political party, and especially within the Lexington County GOP. Which leads me to the realization…we are our own worst enemy. If we are not more thoughtful, truly, the ones that will suffer will be our kids.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Elected in 2020, Rebecca Blackburn Hines is the current chair of the School District 5 of Lexington & Richland Counties Board of Trustees. Rebecca works in small business economic development and resides in Chapin, S.C. with her husband and their three young children, ages nine, seven and four months.

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3 comments

Avatar photo
The Colonel Top fan July 12, 2023 at 6:06 pm

Some word salad going on here and I actually agree with most of what she’s saying, I think.

Reply
jbl1a July 13, 2023 at 8:47 am

Kicked dog hollering loudly.

Reply
SBT July 13, 2023 at 8:19 pm

She does NOT respond to her constituents. In fact, when asked questions she is known for BLOCKING people on Facebook. I had a question for her when she was running for House Representative. I even voted for her for School Board. But for her to feel too important to respond, and even block me was uncalled for.

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