Education

On taxpayer-funded trips, Midlands school boards are often treated to lavish meals

File photo
File photo The State

For school board members in the Midlands and all of South Carolina, being elected to serve a district can mean a lot of extra work, but it can have its perks.

There are the mugs and t-shirts and notes from students at district schools. There are school events at which you’ll be patted on the back for attending. There are exclusive tours of new schools.

And there are long, taxpayer-funded weekends at Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach resorts, where you’ll network with other school officials at conferences and be treated to dinners at the nicest restaurants in town.

The meals, paid for by architecture and construction companies vying for large district projects, are considered gifts — and there are few restrictions on them under South Carolina ethics laws.

An analysis by The State of ethics filings by Midlands school board members and superintendents found that district officials accepted $32,000 in gifts between 2012 and 2018. And many of the gifts happened at South Carolina School Boards Association conferences, according to school board members and superintendents interviewed by The State.

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By allowing school districts and companies to pay their way into the annual gatherings, the school boards association serves as a consistent meeting place and a conduit through which the gifts can be distributed.

Newly elected school board members are required to attend an orientation session and an annual training. Most new board members show up a day early to the school board conference — which takes place in Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach or Charleston — attend orientation, and then stay for the remaining days of normal programming.

But they are not required to attend every conference. However, the South Carolina School Boards Association encourages boards with its “boardsmanship institute” to attend as many conferences and trainings as possible.

The institute is a points-based system that rewards those who attend the most conferences and on-site trainings in their school districts.

In the Midlands, Michael Cates and Jan Hammond from Lexington-Richland 5; Darrell Black from Richland 1, and Lindsay Agostini and James Shadd III from Richland 2 reached level 3 in the boardsmanship institute. Brad Frick from Lexington 4, and Cheryl Caution-Parker and Amelia McKie from Richland 2 reached level 4. Cheryl Harris from Richland 1 and Monica Elkins-Johnson from Richland 2 reached the highest level, 6.

Several Midlands board members also serve on the board of directors for the South Carolina School Boards Association:

Jamie Devine, secretary/treasurer (Richland 1)

Cheryl Burgess, vice president (Lexington 3)

Amelia McKie (Richland 2)

Daniel Martin (Lexington 4)

ElizaBeth Dickerson Branham, president of the National School Boards Association (Lexington 2)

School board members are not allowed to complete orientation or training courses online or remotely, but they may attend a makeup session for new board members that is held in Columbia every June. No school board members The State spoke with attended the local training.

Vendors are likewise offered incentives to become “members” and “special associates” — euphemisms for sponsors — at the conferences. Companies that seek to work with school districts can pay the school boards association and gain access to school officials.

In an informational packet on the association’s website, companies’ “memberships” are described as serving dual purposes: showing public support for education and getting a foot in the door.

“Network directly with more than 700 school board members and superintendents across the state who spend billions of dollars annually to equip and maintain more than 1,100 school buildings and provide educational opportunities to more than 650,000 public school students,” the packet says.

For a gold-level membership, which is the most expensive, a company can pay $10,000 for an exhibit booth, a full-page advertisement in the event program, signage and other benefits. The company’s literature is included in the convention packet.

For an architecture firm or construction manager, a few thousand dollars can guarantee a spot in a room full of exhibitors, sponsored sessions and extended lunch breaks in which to chat up possible clients. The more a company donates to the school boards association, the more perks come with the membership. During the day, companies can mingle with people pulling district purse strings, raffle out door prizes and emblazon their logos all over.

After hours, school board members are taken — sometimes two busloads at a time, according to Lexington 3 interim superintendent Stephen Hefner — to dinners at top steakhouses and celebrity chef grilles.

And since the tab is picked up by the companies hosting the meal, school board members report an estimate — usually a mental tally — of what the meal cost. They are not required to submit receipts to the ethics commission. For smaller gifts, such as candy and nuts, several board members said they looked up prices on the internet. For meals at high-brow grilles that may or may not have prices on the menu, or if a dinner is a private residence, that is a bit more complicated.

Board members have the option of paying for themselves or not attending meals with vendors. Some, like new Lexington 1 board members Jada Garris and Kyle Guyton, said they do just that.

Garris, a longtime critic of the district she now serves, said she had routinely checked board members’ statements of economic interest prior to running for her seat. Now that she is a school board member, she said she avoids unnecessary expenses, does not attend vendor dinners and pays for her own food. Garris has her mileage and lodging paid for by the district.

She said in the beginning, other board members insisted she join them for the vendor meals because it is a chance for school officials to get to know one another and each other’s families better. Garris said she did not see the point of mingling with vendors after hours.

“Their work speaks for itself, so I don’t need to have a personal relationship with you in order to make a decision on whether to work with you or not,” she said. “That shouldn’t factor into the equation at all and for me, it kind of muddies the waters.”

For some firms with smaller marketing budgets, the access isn’t worth the price, according to Butch Barnhart of JHS Architecture.

He said his firm exhibited at the annual state school boards association conferences for more than two decades, but JHS stopped paying into the membership in 2018. More than a thousand dollars a year, plus the expenses incurred while treating school officials, was too much, Barnhart said.

“From our standpoint, you don’t reap the rewards for the expenditures,” Barnhart said.

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Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.
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