Wednesday, November 26, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

We had a ton of calls from folks wanting to talk about last week’s column on the Jasper County School Board redistricting, and public input meetings. The overwhelming majority of communication was positive. It is absolutely in concert with my impression that the local stakeholders are ready for a profound change in how their schools are administered. That change begins with an honest, publicly endorsed reapportionment.

After seeing my column in print, I was a little taken aback. Usually, I am a bit more circumspect in how I write about things where folks can potentially get their feelings hurt. Honestly, I was more than a little irritated by the shamelessness of the effort to game the system by having outsiders giving testimony obviously influenced by a single source.

If I was unduly harsh or hurtfully candid, it is because I think that this matter should be approached with the understanding that quality education for the upcoming generation of Jasper children trumps the petty political concerns that seem to have done a lot, if not to create, then certainly to perpetuate the current systemic failure. This is about the real life prospects of many young people, as well as the future economic viability of their home communities. It shouldn’t be the grist for the petty politics mill.

As your representative, I take this very seriously. I know many of you personally. We, in the delegation, have heard your stories and seen first-hand the manner in which the majority on the school board has behaved regarding your concerns. One way or another, this situation will improve. If not, it is not unprecedented for the state to assume control of a school district to institute basic systems and controls. We all hope it does not come to that.

On a more positive note, I want to return to local topics in Bluffton, specifically the topic nearest and dearest to all Blufftonians. That is, of course, the May River, and how we can work together to return it to a pristine condition. You may remember that for the last couple of budget cycles, water concerns in southern Beaufort County saw a fair number of our tax dollars repatriated to the area. I want to give a little background on that.

Our friends at the SC Department of Heath and Environmental Control (DHEC) have a big job and not as much funding as they would like. Consequently, they prioritize their support very carefully. To that end, this legislator brought Marc Orlando and Shawn Leiniger, from the Town of Bluffton, up to Columbia to meet with the proper folks from DHEC. They gave an explanation and rationale for water quality funding that was both impressive and persuasive. They gave details on what the river means to our economy, with appropriate facts and figures, as well as what the river means to all of us, in terms of our coherence, unity, and prosperity as a community.

Not only was the initial presentation well received, Marc, now Bluffton town manager, periodically invites DHEC officials down to Bluffton to see how those dollars are spent, and explains how we get strong bang for every dollar invested with Bluffton for river improvement.

From my seat on Ways and Means, it is gratifying to see the DHEC folks use their relationship with Bluffton, and how good their return on investment has been, in committee testimony to justify and explain the need for future appropriations. Also, I am confident that Marc and Shawn are willing and certainly able to articulate the state’s position back to the town, so the town can continue their productive relationship with the state. Having competent people, with good communication skills, makes government at all levels work the way it is supposed to work.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

The timing of the Supreme Court’s long-awaited “Corridor of Shame” ruling could not have been more interesting, when we consider all the hoopla around the Jasper County School Board, and their upcoming redistricting. Our three community input meetings are complete, with credit going to all those who attended and made their voices heard.

The bulk of what we heard was from folks who truly seemed to understand that the status quo was unacceptable, that a failing system needed fundamental change. We were heartened to hear from so many parents and community leaders ready to demand that their kids not be disadvantaged by a substandard public education.

By contrast, it was disappointing to hear from a small group of speakers whose priorities seemed to be more political than educational. They seemed to speak from some other place than Jasper County Council chairwoman, Barbara Clark, who said that our efforts should be “about the kids.” In fact, I spoke with several attendees after the last meeting who were A.M.E. church members. They apologetically told me that much of what some of these folks had to say had been parroted from words they heard from the pulpit in the last several weeks.

Our goal was to take input from the community, which we did. We tried to explain the redistricting process, and what the options were. We introduced an alternate model to the plan formulated by Senator Pinckney—comparing and contrasting among the several possibilities. We were successful on all counts and truly hope that the folks understand they do have choices other than the perennially failing status quo.

It is likely that the House and Senate will come up with different plans for the reapportionment of the Jasper County School Board districts. If that happens and we are unable to resolve the differences, the decision will default to Judge Gergel. In my view, Judge Gergel will now have much more information on which to base his decision than simply the plan reflecting the needs of Senator Pinckney, formulated in private without benefit of any public input.

Another feature of the recent Supreme Court decision will be that we in the legislature will come up with a plan to satisfy the finding that the state had not provided all children in South Carolina with a “minimally adequate” public education. The plan will probably involve a funding increase that will also entail enhanced oversight of how that money is spent. With the high probability that real ethics legislation will be passed early in the next session, including the recommendations of Representative Weston Newton’s FOIA subcommittee, the lack of transparency by the school board majority will be harder to maintain. Also, the Justice Department is sometimes a little loose on political mischief—not so on financial mischief.

My hope is that the Jasper legislative delegation, Jasper County Council, the school board and district will find a way to begin to work together. It would be good if such a thing occurred because it is the right thing to do. Failing that, perhaps we can make some progress because persistent failure will begin to have real consequences, as the state oversight becomes more rigorous. The rewards of the current cronyism are not too difficult to conceal in the generalized mess of ineptitude. The task becomes wearisome in the light of even modest transparency.

One way or the other, I say to you that Jasper children are going to get a better education. We cannot write off another generation just so that a group of insiders and self-identified elites can run the show. We all SAY we want Jasper County to take its place in the ranks of the prosperous South Carolina, to produce and fill jobs that support strong and stable families and communities. Friends, it’s time we all started to ACT like it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Tonight, November 12th, at 6 p.m., is the third and final meeting for public comment on the plans to redistrict the Jasper County School Board. If you are a school parent, or any other Jasper resident with a desire to see your area take its rightful place in a prosperous South Carolina, I urge you to attend. I also hope you will share your thoughts on how best you think your school board may be chosen. If it is your choice to have your school board reapportioned by one person, Senator Pinckney--with no community input, then so be it.

It was three years ago that the legislative districts in our area were reapportioned, resulting in this legislator, Representative Weston Newton, and Senator Tom Davis joining the Jasper legislative delegation. We have, along with my friend and colleague, Representative Bill Bowers, tried to extend the benefits of a more powerful and coherent voice in the statehouse on behalf of Jasper County. We have also tried to provide an example of transparent and open delegation meetings, at which residents could voice opinions they were not allowed to voice in some other venues, specifically the school board meetings.

While Jasper County Council has been a consistently positive force in improving the fortunes of their constituents, the same cannot be said for the majority of current school board members. To the dismay of several board members, school board meetings are anything but transparent or open. We have seen a certain bunker mentality pervade their dealings, to the point of having folks bodily removed from the meetings for the crime of clapping for speakers not espousing the party line. In fact, Representative Newton and I were removed for supporting a young woman apparently clapping out of turn. If the matters under discussion were not of such importance, it would’ve made for great farcical comedy.

Perhaps my two years as chairman of the Jasper legislative delegation is not enough time to properly understand how things are done on school board and its creature, the school district. I know taxes are collected, and dollars are spent, but the results just seem to get worse and worse. I know that Beaufort County has some of the best schools in the state and Jasper County’s seems to always be among the worst. Does it make such a profound difference on which side of Highway 170 one lives? Is it a partisan problem? My colleague, Representative Bowers, is a college professor and a Democrat. He knows firsthand the importance of a good education. He also has deep concerns over how this redistricting is handled.

If I were to surmise from the strong interest in the redistricting, especially from those outside of Jasper County, it almost seems like this is some sort of rural political machine. If the school district hires a lot of folks that don’t seem to get the job done year after year, maybe the rationale of those hires were not about what is best for the kids, and more about the power to hire and whom to hire.

After the recent episode involving the Reverend Darby, I spoke with the IRS and the Justice Department. Apparently, my reports were not the first they had received regarding what we have observed.

The importance of education to the future of the residents of Jasper County is well established. It is one of the best ways to lift the economy and the quality of life of the perennially underperforming county. To relegate the future of the county to the same old failure producing cronyism is inexcusable.

I believe my friend and Jasper County Council chairwoman, Barbara Clark, said it best: “It’s not about what race, color, creed, or the family a kid comes from, it’s simply about the kid.” Enough said. See you tonight.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

We had a gratifyingly good turnout last Wednesday at the Jasper County School Board redistricting meeting in Ridgeland. There is another meeting at 6 p.m. in Hardeeville tonight, with another the following Wednesday, November 12th, at the Jasper County Government Building. I want to personally encourage all members of the community to attend, and make your views on this important issue heard.

There was a pretty good consensus of opinion at last week’s meeting for the seven-district plan. Even the attorney for the school board had good things to say about that option. We do want to hear from more folks, if not for this option, then for another.

However, I am disappointed that there was an untoward attempt to dilute the local stakeholder opinion by a circulated suggestion that folks outside Jasper should attend the meetings and speak, for the presumed purpose of either influencing the mediator, or to sway the opinions of the legitimate stakeholders in attendance. Published reports have it that the Reverend Joseph Darby, the highly respected and influential pastor and senior elder of the Beaufort district of the A.M.E. church, urged his ministerial colleagues around the Lowcountry to suggest to their parishioners they might want to attend the Jasper meetings. While the Reverend Darby played it off as a joke, it was certainly cringworthy humor, at best.

The redistricting of a severely malapportioned school board map is serious business. This is especially so given the inexcusable and persistent failure of the Jasper School District leadership, who serve at the pleasure of the school board. In my view, also shared by the bulk of the Jasper legislative delegation, the shortcomings of the school system are not separate and apart from the structural deficiency on the school board.
The fact that there is a 62% deviation between the size of the largest and smallest districts, that has been unrepaired for almost a decade, is telling. The bunker mentality of the current board, with their flagrant disregard for even the basics of transparency and fairness, is also a telling feature.

As to Reverend Darby’s alleged joke, I am at a loss as to how such an esteemed community leader could align himself with the interests of a status quo that seems designed to diminish those who have the very least to lose. Education is the great equalizer in this country. With a good education, doors open. Without an education, all doors are closed.
There is a political dimension to public education, whether we like it or not. The Jasper delegation is attempting to allow the voices of the school parents and the other stakeholders of good will to be heard, to be able to have a say in the prospects of success for their children and their community. We don’t need more political mischief.

Next Sunday, the 9th of November, is a day many of us have been looking forward to for a long time. The 7th annual Taste of Waddell is happening on the gorgeous high bluff overlooking the Colleton/Okatie on the grounds of the Waddell Mariculture Center at the end of Sawmill Creek Road in Greater Bluffton.

From 3 to 7 p.m., we will enjoy shrimp three ways by incredible chef Michael Sigler. Bluffton Town Councilman Larry Toomer and his lovely wife Tina , from the Bluffton Oyster Company, will have steaming buckets of Bluffton oysters. You will also get a chance to hear from my pal Al Stokes about the ongoing renovations to the installation, as well as their new, cool water science.

The charge is $30, which does not include oysters or wine and beer. The sunset, which is free, is more than worth the tariff.

Mary and I, along with Weston and Rose, look forward to seeing you.
Call 785-4106 or email for reservations.