Greenville Plan -- Court Ruling In Colleton
by Alex Saitta
December 15, 2006
In November 2005, the previous school district administration followed the constitution and put their $197 million facilities plan to a referendum vote. The plan was rejected by the voters. The right thing was for them to then put a smaller plan on the ballot, and take two or three bites at the problem. Instead, the new district administration hired a lawyer, that has been peddling around the state a scheme that enables a school board to borrow even more money -- $315 million, and do it without voter approval. Lawyers know where the restrictions and prohibitions of law are, and where they are not, so this law firm designed a scheme that lied just beyond the edge of the law.
For example, the constitution specifies, if the “school board” wants to borrow more than 8% of the assessed value of the property in the county, the people must approve it in a referendum. To get around this restriction, the school board creates a dummy company and it borrows the money on behalf of the board. This way the school board gets hauled into court, it can say to the judge, “We didn't borrow the $315 million -- look, it is not on our books. Therefore, the we weren’t required to let the people vote on it.”
Even though the school board is the one that has to pay all the money back, the Supreme Court adhered to the literal meaning of “if the school board borrows”, and that clause couldn’t be used to stop this scheme.
Just because this isn’t illegal, doesn’t make it right. Conspiring to create and then use such a scheme to take away the people's right to vote on all this debt is wrong. That's why most school boards in the state have not engaged in this scheme and the legislature has outlawed this again as of January 1.
The reason I say “again” is because a few years ago the legislature outlawed an older version of this scheme with law 11-27-110. In the Supreme Court opinion, the justices looked at 11-27-110 but concluded it doesn't prohibit this latest version of this scheme, mainly, because the scheme has been purposely modified so the wording of 11-27-110 no longer applies.
No where does in the court’s ruling does it say this scheme is legal. There is no law on the books that addresses this scheme, so there is no law that says it is legal. What the court ruling says is, there are no law on the books that prohibit this scheme as it is currently structured Again, the school district’s hired lawyers were successful in creating and then changing this scheme so it now sits just outside the prohibtions of the law. That will change on January 1, when the changes to 11-27-110 take effect and this scheme become illegal again.
The failure here doesn’t lie with the court system. The courts followed the specific wording of the law. Lawyers earn a living creating schemes that get around the wording of the law. This has always been the case, and in a free market, it always will be. The failure lies in the school board, particularly, the six who voted to implement this scheme that was designed to go around the law, and take away your right to vote on all this debt.
Changes in how the school board functions need to be made. The state delegation -- Larry Martin, Davey Hiott, Phil Owens, Rex Rice, BR Skelton -- need to implement some of these changes to make sure something like this doesn't happen again.
For starters, the board needs to be forced to have two or three readings on issues that involve this amount of money. This $315 million plan was introduced to the public on November 21 and approved by the board in one reading on November 27.
We need some form of recall elections. I agree with a recent letter in the Easley Progress. Kevin Kay, Shirley Jones and BJ Skelton just ran campaigns and didn't say they supported the Greenville Plan, and never gave a hint they'd support a 40-mill tax increase. Candidates shouldn't be able to run campaigns, saying one thing, and then when they get in and do the opposite with no consequences. If the people can get 10% of registered voters to sign a petition requesting a recall election, then those candidates should be put up for a recall election. The people didn't want this, their right to vote on all this debt was taken away and now the people can't do any thing about it. If the state had a recall statue, these six board members would have never defied the people and voted for this.