A Senate committee Wednesday scaled down a billthat would have replaced the entire board of trustees at South Carolina State University. Meanwhile, that very board of trustees revealed Wednesday that SC State faces a $5.3 million deficit for its 2012-2013 budget.
The Senate Higher Education Subcommittee approved a proposal that would trim two seats off the board and allow for half of those remaining seats to come up for re-election in the General Assembly next year.
But one opponent of the plan said it did not go far enough to fix problems at the troubled school.
“What this amendment does is simply shift the chairs on the Titanic. Nothing more, nothing less,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg), who pushed for a different version that passed the House last month. That proposal would have replaced the SC State board with an interim panel.
She said former SLED Chief Reggie Lloyd, who has been leading an internal investigation at the school, told legislators in February that “the entire board needs to go.” She said Lloyd warned that, while not all the board members were not involved in wrongdoing, “each and every member… was aware of impropriety and chose not to do anything.”
However, Sen. John Matthews (D-Orangeburg) said he had been warned by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) that the House plan could hurt SC State’s accreditation.
“Everybody agrees (the board must go),” Matthews said, “But if you read the SACS letter, they say that violates their rules.” He said an interim board appointed by the governor, House Speaker, and Senate President pro tempore would likely be viewed as political interference in school affairs.
Matthews hoped attrition would help make things easier for lawmakers. Three board members have already resigned and another’s term expires in July. Chairman Jonathan Pinson has stepped down from his leadership position, but keeps his seat on the board. Three other seats are up for re-election next year.
The proposal passed by the subcommittee Wednesday would end the current system of electing trustees by congressional district. Instead, nine seats would be selected at-large by the entire state legislature, one would be appointed by the governor, and an eleventh would be elected by alumni.
The full Senate Education Committee passed the proposal unanimously a few minutes later.
“Doing nothing is really not an option. This has been going on too long,” committee chairman Sen. John Courson (R-Columbia) said. He pointed out school officials are now trying to make spending cuts to address a $5.3 million shortfall in next year’s budget. The school says declining enrollment (including over 500 fewer students in summer sessions than last year) is a big reason for the deficit.
However, Cobb-Hunter said she doubted the House would support any version that keeps the current board intact. She said a survey of SC State alumni overwhelmingly supported replacing the entire board.
But Sen. Darrell Jackson (R-Columbia) questioned if cleaning house was really the wisest option. He said other schools, most notably the University of South Carolina in the late 1980s, have had scandals over finances. But those boards stayed intact.
“This would be unprecedented, to remove an entire board at an institution of higher learning because of a crisis that’s going on now,” he said Wednesday.
The proposal next goes to the Senate floor, where supporters hope to get a vote by next week.