A board that runs a state-owned school for at-risk youth in McCormick opposes a plan by state lawmakers to put them under direct control of the Haley Administration for a year while the school’s finances are sorted out.
The five members of the John de la Howe School board of trustees issued a statement last week, in opposition to a budget amendment that puts the school under the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) for a year. The proposal cleared the state House of Representatives last week and now heads to the Senate.
“To place John de la Howe under the Department of Juvenile Justice would send the wrong message to children and families served by the agency,” the board said in its statement.
Following several years of steadily-growing costs at the 217-year-old school, Gov. Nikki Haley had requested that DJJ and other state agencies come up with a plan for its future. At roughly the same time, the state Inspector General issued a report criticizing a lack of oversight and controls at John de la Howe that led to the school spending almost $87,000 per student enrolled. The school spent $5.4 million last fiscal year, with an average of 54 overnight students on the 1,200-acre campus. 74 students were enrolled as of last week, according to the school’s interim president.
State Rep. Kenny Bingham, a Cayce Republican who chairs the House’s education budget panel, said he initially gave school leaders two weeks to come up with a plan addressing the report’s concerns. But the insufficient response led him to consider shutting off state funds and sending students to private schools, instead. The school’s principal and vice-principal both resigned last month, at the board’s request. Bingham has softened his stance, but wants additional oversight.
The 10-member board only has 5 members at the moment, Bingham told his fellow lawmakers on the House floor. The Governor’s Office is in the process of filling the vacant seats, but Bingham said those trustees will be inexperienced and unlikely to know the school’s best interests in their first year.
“Our subcommittee has been inundated with calls by concerned faculty members, parents, and students… about the direction of that school,” he said last week. “We want to save the school, but we have to clean up a problem that exists.”
Under the proposal, which cleared the House of Representatives in a unanimous voice vote, DJJ would have to approve any actions by the John de la Howe School and its board of trustees. The arrangement would last for a year, by which time Bingham hoped the board and school leadership would stabilize and be able to take over operations once again.
Interim president Danny Webb told the Associated Press, “The governor and governing bodies will do what they feel is appropriate.”
The school was established in 1797 according to the will of Dr. John de la Howe. According to the will, de la Howe’s estate of 2000 acres in McCormick County was left to the state to care for 12 poor boys and 12 poor girls in a school based setting with preference to be given to orphans. The school became a state agency in 1918.