S.C. State University President Thomas Elzey sued the financially struggling school Tuesday, alleging it breached his contract after severance negotiations broke down.
Elzey also wants to stop the university’s board from firing him while his lawsuit goes through the courts. A hearing on that request is scheduled for March 19, said Nancy Bloodgood, Elzey’s attorney.
The trustees of S.C. State, the state’s only historically black public college, have a meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday to receive legal advice. They could fire Elzey, but Bloodgood said she has asked the board to hold off until the March 19 hearing.
The trustees placed Elzey on administrative leave Feb. 23 after African-American lawmakers and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat and S.C State alum, called for his ouster.
S.C. State’s board has not said publicly why it suspended Elzey and named Franklin Evans, the school’s interim provost, as acting president.
But critics say Elzey has been too slow to address S.C. State’s financial woes, including a $17 million deficit that led to an S.C. House proposal to temporarily close the school for two years. Elzey has countered by saying the school’s trustees would not let him make deeper budget cuts.
An attorney for the board, Ken Childs, said last week that S.C. State’s trustees would begin talks to part ways with Elzey, whose contract runs through June 2017. The president could receive $427,386 in state pay and unused vacation if fired without cause, according to a legislative financial analysis.
“No offer was made near that,” Bloodgood said Tuesday. She added, however, “There’s always room for settlement.”
The lawsuit seeks the money that Elzey says he is owed, according to his contract, plus an undetermined amount of extra money for emotional, psychological and potential physical damage that the president suffered as well as embarrassment and humiliation.
Elzey’s complaint, filed in Orangeburg, S.C. State’s hometown, alleges the school breached his contract by placing him on paid leave for no reason and not providing him with a car.
The lawsuit said “the mere subjective and/or personal dissatisfaction” with Elzey by some trustees and politicians is not a reason to fire the president without compensation.
The complaint also says trustees chairman William Small ignored an agreement with Elzey that called for improved communication between the president and trustees. Instead, S.C. State’s trustees have tried micromanaging the president and blaming him for the school’s financial crisis, the lawsuit said.
In early 2014, less than a year into his tenure at S.C. State, Elzey said the school had an $14 million deficit that had built up since 2007. Despite some budget cuts, that deficit — especially money owed vendors for vendor bills — has grown to $17 million.
Efforts to reach Childs and Small were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Meanwhile, lawmakers took steps Tuesday to eliminate the current S.C. State University board of trustees.
S.C. House members on a budget subcommittee approved a proposal to replace S.C. State’s trustees with the S.C. Budget and Control Board, who then could appoint an interim president.
Senators likely will debate their bill to restructure S.C. State – sponsored by President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence – as early as Wednesday.
That bill would give the governor, House speaker, Senate president pro tem and the chairs of both the House and Senate education committees — all Republicans — each an appointee on the new S.C. State board. The new trustees, who could terminate or hire a president, would serve through June 2018.
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, opposed fast-tracking the Senate bill so it would be a priority Wednesday. He argued lawmakers already have replaced more than half of S.C. State’s board since 2013.
Malloy also opposed the Senate plan because it would give control of S.C. State, the state’s only public historically black university, to five Republicans instead of having the General Assembly’s 170 members elect board members, as they do now.