S.C. Legislature

SC House approves state takeover of school for at-risk kids

ashain@thestate.comMarch 11, 2014 

Selling The Capitol

The South Carolina Statehouse


— The state Department of Juvenile Justice would take over a troubled state-operated school for at-risk youth in the Upstate for a year under a budget amendment approved by the S.C. House on Tuesday.

The proposal still needs approval from the state Senate and Gov. Nikki Haley, who backed the temporary takeover in her budget proposal for the state’s fiscal year that starts July 1.

“We want to help get the school back on stable footing,” said state Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington. “Right now, there is no stable footing.”

Questions have surrounded the John de la Howe School in McCormick in recent years.

House budget makers were frustrated that the school spent money given in recent years to help make up for recession-era shortfalls. Also, in January, the S.C. Inspector General’s office issued a report suggesting the school lower its costs and improve its management, especially in addressing low-performance scores.

The school’s board disagreed with some of that report’s findings, including a lack of oversight by trustees and high per-day student costs. The report calculated that cost at $240 a day, while trustees said a measure suggested by House budget makers put that figure at $79 a day.

The John de la Howe School opened as an orphanage and now operates as a residential facility for children with behavioral issues from across the state. Much of the school’s leadership has left this year.

The agency’s president and the school’s principal, chairwoman and vice chairwoman resigned.

The Juvenile Justice Department would run the school’s administrative operations through June 30, 2015.

Trustees will oversee the school with guidance from the state departments of Juvenile Justice, Education, Mental Health and Social Services. The trustees also must come up with a plan by Sept. 1 to deal with suggestions in the Inspector General’s report and provide quarterly updates.

The school has 71 children enrolled. The school can accommodate 120 students, but it does not have space for that number as its living quarters undergo renovations. The school also needs more state money after recession-era cuts, acting president Danny Webb and trustees chairwoman Barbara Devinney said.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the school,” said Webb, who has worked at John de la Howe for seven years.

But Webb said he respects the decision by lawmakers. “We look forward to moving forward.”

Trustees are meeting Thursday to choose a new principal and set a job description for the agency’s president, Devinney said.

Just five of the school’s nine trustee positions, all appointed by the governor, are filled, Devinney said. Four trustees started in June. The fifth new trustee is coming to her first meeting this week.

“We’ll move forward to satisfy the needs of the agencies,” she said.

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