The head of South Carolina’s college oversight agency is stepping down from his post amid scrutiny from state lawmakers over his unauthorized $91,500 pay raise.
Jeff Schilz, interim director of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, told the agency’s board Tuesday of his plans to resign.
Schilz will stay with the agency for the next two weeks to “ensure a smooth transition,” he wrote in a letter provided to The State.
Schilz told The State on Wednesday he had intended to leave the agency at the end of the year.
“I feel that the time is right for me to step away from the CHE,” Schilz wrote in a seven-page letter Tuesday to CHE commissioners. “While we have accomplished a great deal together, I have always believed that the ideas are more important than those that serve and, now, a fresh perspective and new energy are needed to advance the reforms necessary to bring affordability, balance and sustainability to the state’s higher education system.”
Schilz is the second CHE official to resign in the past two months after his raise became an issue.
Former commission chair Tim Hofferth — appointed in 2015 by then-Gov. Nikki Haley — resigned in October, facing calls for him to quit over his approval of Schilz’s raise.
Schilz’s big pay hike, which became public last month, angered state lawmakers, who said the raise — from $166,280 a year to $257,767 — was done in violation of state law. State Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, the Florence Republican who is the state’s most powerful lawmaker, called the raise illegal, and said Hofferth and Schilz should resign.
Schilz returned the money, contending he knew nothing about the raise and did not ask for it.
Leatherman was skeptical.
“You have testified ... that you had no knowledge of the raise despite clear evidence that you received an email on your personal account prior to the 52% raise being processed,” Leatherman told Schilz in a Nov. 7 letter, adding, “and it seems that you would have to know of the raise when your next paycheck was deposited.”
Hofferth defended the raise, writing Leatherman that it was approved by the commission. In an Aug. 24 email obtained by The State, Hofferth wrote the commission voted unanimously to approve the raise during an August executive session. That would be illegal under S.C. law, which bars taking action in closed sessions. (Hofferth later told The State that language was a mistake).
Two commissioners told senators in a public hearing last month that they did not recall approving Schilz’s raise.
Leatherman and House Ways and Means Committee chair Brian White, R-Anderson, also have questioned the use of a CHE foundation to pay for part of Schilz’s salary increase. Last month, White requested an audit of the agency and its foundation.
State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said Wednesday it was “just a matter of time before” Schilz resigned. Hutto, who sits on the state Senate Education Committee, said the Legislature will re-examine CHE’s mission and leadership when legislators return to Columbia in January.
The pay controversy comes after a years-long effort by CHE to hold S.C. colleges and universities accountable for rising tuition costs.
State-funded colleges chafed under that criticism, saying they have had few options — other than to raise tuition — in the wake of Great Recession-era cuts in state funding for higher education. Meanwhile, they add, lawmakers have not responded to their pleas for more state money to keep down tuition costs.
On Monday, CHE released its Palmetto Calculator that tracks the affordability of higher education, based on a prospective student’s choice of a college or university, federal assistance, scholarships, housing costs, even prices for on-campus meal plans.
“CHE has an important role to play,” Hutto said. “But it seems in the last few years they’ve gotten off track.”
State Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, said Wednesday that Schilz’s absence will be noticed.
“I’m concerned because ... Jeff was very smart, articulate and had the commission’s mission at heart,” said Allison, who chairs the House’s Education and Public Works Committee. “He will be missed.”