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Fight over partisan school elections goes statewide in SC

February 14, 2022 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A bill that would have candidates for school board run as members of political parties in one South Carolina district has been rejected by a bipartisan group of House members.

The House voted 49-47 on Thursday against a bill to have voters choose between Democrats and Republicans in elections for the Lancaster County School District. Currently candidates aren’t listed by political parties, similar to all but two other districts in the state.

Usually, lawmakers leave so-called “local bills” to the lawmakers from the county they are drafted to deal with. But a number of Democrats and Republicans came together to oppose this one, saying passing the proposal could lead to a dangerous chain reaction by more districts, The Post and Courier newspaper reported.

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“It’s going to lead to political hacks taking over the school board, on the right and on the left,” said Rep. Cezar McKnight, a Democrat from Kingstree.

Supporters of the bill said the people of Lancaster County want transparency in school board elections in a county that is both growing rapidly in population and in a conservative direction. They cite issues like COVID-19 and curriculum.

“You have to declare a party to run to be elected to state superintendent of education,” the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Sandy McGarry of Lancaster told the newspaper. “Why do we not have to declare for school board? It just does not make any sense.”

McGarry’s bill was backed by other powerful members of the Lancaster County delegation including Speaker Jay Lucas of Hartsville and Republican Whip Brandon Newton, whose district that includes the northern part of the county grew by more than 60% in the past decade.

Newton said while he thinks officers like treasurer or auditor should be decided in nonpartisan elections because they are administrative, school boards are different.

“I have a general belief any body that sets policy and spends taxpayer money that is elected should be elected in a partisan fashion,” Newton said on the House floor Thursday.

While opponents managed to stop the bill from passing last week, they did not kill it for the session and it could come up again.

Only school boards in Horry County and Lee County are chosen by political party now, said South Carolina School Boards Association Executive Director Scott Price, whose organization opposed the bill.

There were just five in 1996 and legal challenges over whether that led to radial discrimination reduced the numbers.

“What happened today was a reflection of the feeling that politics should not be a part of school board elections,” Price told the newspaper.

The Democrats voting against the bill were joined by Republicans like Rita Allison of Lyman, who is chairwoman for the House’s education committee and Reps. Raye Felder of Fort Mill and Neal Collins of Pickens, who take special interest in education issues.

Collins said a takeover of the Pickens County School Board by conservatives led to the election of a candidate without a high school diploma.

“At a statewide level, I think this is the wrong way to go,” Collins said. “This local legislation would hurt.”