DILLON -- A high school football coach and state lawmaker is the most influential decisionmaker when it comes to education issues in Dillon County, home of three districts suing the Legislature in a 14-year-old dispute over money.
Rep. Jackie Hayes is the county's legislative delegation chairman -- and lone resident lawmaker. He also is Dillon High School's head football coach.
The only say Dillon County voters get about education is when they go to the polls every other year to pick their member of the House of Representatives. Since 1999, that has been Hayes.
Hayes and state senators Kent Williams of Marion County and Dick Elliott of Horry County, all Democrats, appoint the county board of ed- ucation and approve school budgets. That nine-member board, in turn, appoints three local panels that oversee public schools in Dillon, Lake View and Latta.
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Hayes, who answers to the name "Coach," gets high marks from most civic leaders as well as education leaders, some of whom owe their positions to him.
"If it wasn't for Rep. Hayes, our school system wouldn't be what it is today," said Richard Schafer, a member of the Dillon County school board since 1989.
In 2006, one Dillon district was rated average, one was rated below average and a third was rated unsatisfactory.
Before Hayes was elected, Schafer said, predecessors were known for being tight-fisted when approving school budgets. One, Schafer said, boasted he cut badly needed taxes for school spending.
Hayes says he has approved more tax increases for schools "than any elected official. That's why we're in the shape we're in."
The father of three children who attend Dillon 2 schools said: "I've got a truly vested interest. I'm a product of the system.'
Dillon 2 superintendent Ray Rogers said Hayes brings an "educator's eye to the issues we face."
"We're lucky to have him" serving as a state lawmaker, said Rogers, who technically is Hayes' boss.
Hayes, Williams and Elliott backed a plan this past spring to raise money for school construction. They got legislative colleagues to pass a law that authorizes the county school board to borrow up to $60 million -- if voters give their blessing in a referendum.
"All the kids deserve the same opportunities, resources and tools to be successful," Hayes said. "That's what guides me."
Attorney Michael Stephens said Dillon schools desperately need fixing but is leery of those who will be responsible for deciding how the money is spent.
"I have reservations," the Dillon High graduate said, because the county school board "answers to nobody as it is."
"We have an unelected board spending 75 percent of the taxes collected in Dillon County. I'm not sure I want to give them the authority to spend more" on school construction, said Stephens, who ran against Hayes in a 2006 Democratic primary.
Hayes dismisses such criticism by noting he's bested every political opponent who ran on a campaign platform calling for an elected school board.
Even though he draws a paycheck from one of the public school systems he indirectly has a hand in managing, Hayes said, "I don't get involved in any board decisions or hiring."
Hayes said his constituents "believe I'm going to do what's best for our schools."
"We take the politics out of it," Hayes said. "If we had an elected board, people might be doing things to get re-elected instead of what's best for the children and the schools."
Reach Robinson at (803) 771-8482.