State House rally: ‘SC State is not going to close’

More than 1,000 supporters of South Carolina State University gathered Monday at the State House to rally against a legislative proposal to close the school for two years.

Lawmakers, ministers and activists promised to keep open South Carolina’s only historically black public college, decrying what they said is a lack of state funding for the Orangeburg school.

“The state of South Carolina has a sad and sorry history of only giving S.C. State enough to get by,” the Rev. Joseph Darby, elder of the AME Church’s Beaufort District and an alum of S.C. State, told the crowd. “We need to say – loud and clear – that we’re tired of just getting by.”

Meanwhile, a group of current and former S.C. State students has filed a federal lawsuit against the state. The suit alleges the state has damaged S.C. State’s enrollment by failing to give it enough money and by allowing other public colleges to duplicate courses offered at S.C. State.

S.C. State’s enrollment has fallen by nearly 40 percent since 2007 – to less than 3,000 students – as state funding and federal financial aid have shrunk.

“What they did diluted what was offered to students at S.C. State,” said Glenn Walters, the Orangeburg attorney and S.C. State alum who filed the lawsuit.

The court action comes in the wake of a proposal, approved last week by a small S.C. House budget panel, to close S.C. State’s classes for two years, starting in July, and fire the school’s trustees, administrators, staff and faculty. Students would be offered state scholarships to attend other schools.

The full House Ways and Means Committee is expected to take up the closing proposal at a meeting Tuesday. Because of expected opposition on the House floor and in the state Senate, the proposal, which has been called a “nuclear bomb” because it would cost S.C. State its accreditation, is not expected to pass.

But that will not end legislative pressure on the college’s trustees and administration.

A House bill filed last week calls for firing the university’s leadership. Some black state lawmakers also have said they don’t think S.C. State President Thomas Elzey should keep his job.

The financially troubled school owes vendors $11 million. To help pay off its debts, the state has promised S.C. State $18 million in loans and cash infusions. The school already has received $7.5 million of that money.

The school also is developing budget cuts to offset its lower revenues, because of its shrinking enrollment. The finance committee of S.C. State’s board of trustees met Monday to discuss those plans.

The school has cut its spending by $1.8 million this year. Also, the state Senate approved a bill last week that would allow S.C. State to furlough workers for up to 20 working days, saving more than $3 million, based on estimates.

Lawmakers who back closing S.C. State temporarily say the move would give the school time to restructure its finances. They say the school’s administrators and trustees have not developed a timely, detailed financial rescue plan.

Monday’s rally at the State House was organized by the S.C. State Conference of the NAACP. Among those in attendance was the chairman of S.C. State’s trustees, William Small, head football coach Buddy Pough and men’s basketball coach Murray Garvin.

Derrick Green, vice president of the university’s alumni association, told those at the rally he has a plan – take the money some House members propose to spend on sending S.C. State students to other schools and “give it to the students that are there now.”

“We all here are taxpayers, and we have voices,” he said.

Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, told the crowd he and other members of the Legislative Black Caucus would work to stop the school closing proposal at Tuesday’s House budget meeting.

Neal said the closing proposal, approved by three Republican lawmakers, was a “blessing in disguise.”

The threat of closing S.C. State temporarily has energized students and graduates to show support for the school, including at rallies in Orangeburg and Columbia, Neal said.

The school will hold a gospel concert fundraiser on campus Saturday to raise money for scholarships.

Neal and Darby urged the crowd to donate to S.C State, saying it can no longer rely on state and federal funding. Darby said the school needs an endowment to rival the savings accounts at the University of South Carolina and Clemson University, the state’s largest public colleges.

“Don’t you sweat it,” Neal told the cheering crowd. “S.C. State is not going to close.”