Dr. Craig Witherspoon and Jamie Devine Must Step Down From Their Respective Offices

Dr. Craig Witherspoon and Jamie Devine Must Step Down From Their Respective Offices

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Will B. started this petition to Richland one students and

Why Dr. Craig Witherspoon and Jamie Devine Must Step Down

To Whom It May Concern,
        In 2015, the job of Richland One Superintendent was offered to Dr. Craig Witherspoon. Despite objections from parents, due to the fact that they were not involved in the process and Dr. Witherspoon’s past, the Richland One Board of Commissioners voted 5-2 to offer a contract to Dr. Witherspoon. To understand why this is a problem, Dr. Witherspoon’s past needs a look at. Before he was the Superintendent of Richland One, he was the Superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools from 2010-2014. In 2010, problems arose when Dr. Witherspoon failed to notify the school board that an HR director, that he recommended they hire, was placed on administrative leave from his last job. This was humiliating for the board. The lack of communication continued far into the next couple of years. So much, in fact, that the board cited lack of communication on his job evaluation. In addition, the board was critical of the Witherspoon administration's handling of certain procedural issues—including the way that federal Title I funds were used. Board members also expressed frustration with the pace of academic progress. In 2012, The Birmingham schoolboard attempted to fire Dr. Witherspoon, but failed due to a procedural issue. Once again, in 2012, the decision to fire him was remade. However, the State Superintendent reversed the decision. In the following year, those on the board who opposed Dr. Witherspoon either were not re-elected or resigned. In 2014, his contract was renewed, along with a special court order—one that prohibited the school board from firing him without prior court approval. However, the district was relieved of Dr. Witherspoon when he resigned, effective December 31, 2014. Dr. Witherspoon did not comment on the reason for his resignation.

        After being hired by Richland One, fresh criticisms arose: this time from this district. In 2016, the district missed a Title 1 federal funding deadline that cost the district at least 3.1 million dollars. Understandably so, Richland One parents called for his resignation. Another criticism were the clear conflicts of interest on the school board. Lasenta Lewis-Ellis’s company LLE Construction Group managed construction and renovations for eight stadiums/ fields in the district which cost more than $728,190. This included the AC Flora field, which was unplayable for months in 2019 due to safety issues. Lewis-Ellis is also the owner of Need-A-Lift transportation company — a company that was paid $105,457 in the fiscal school year, according to RCSD1 records. The phone number on the service’s website was not in service. Lewis-Ellis also is a board member of the Engenuity program which received $550,000 from the school district in 2018-2019. Tameika Devine, chairman Jamie Devine’s wife, was a board member for Engenuity in 2018. Richland 1 commissioner Cheryl Harris is currently on the EngenuitySC board.

        In a well-led district, the fiscal problems would have been minimal, maybe even non-existent. However, this is not the case. The district pays over 250k every single year to the Irly Bird program, founded by Columbia preacher, Warren Davis. In the last fiscal year, the district spent $39,000 over budget on this program. Despite being called an Elementary STEM and Literacy Initiative, this program did not have accreditation from educational experts at the time that the district entered a contract with the program. Even if being about STEM was enough for the district to spend money on it, there were several faults in the storyline, such as a computer coder who fixes a computer with a screwdriver, which is not teaching kids about computers nor coding. As well, anonymous parents alleged that the books were crudely made and sprinkled with grammatical errors and plot deficiencies, according to the Post and Courier. Qualifications aside, in 2015, Davis opposed including LGBTQ+ people in a city human-rights commission, and would only support the commission if it did not include gay people. Quoted, he said “homosexuality is a sin”.

        Next, a plethora of other budgeting problems will be addressed. In the past five years, money for advertising in the district rose 5,500 percent. Last year, money from the Richland One Hall of Fame Gala received a net loss of $42,178.10. In the 2019 fiscal report, several food expenses stuck out. Such as: $50,114 at Chick-Fil-A, $26,291 at Jason’s Deli, $23,644 at Honey Baked Ham, $4,845 at Hudson’s Smokehouse, $1,974 at Disney Destination LLC, $2,298 at Doc’s Restaurant LLC, $1,909 at Golden Corral, and $4455 at Halls Restaurant and Catering. Another problem was the $700 spent for matching jackets for the school board. While not relatively expensive—as compared to the lavish spending the board has done—parents are calling it symbolic of the district’s budgeting problems. Another symbolic gesture was the re-mulching and adding of palm trees to Hand Middle School, while the bathrooms still had shiny metal for mirrors. Another devastating hit to Richland One’s budget hit in 2019, when a budgeting error cost the district 4.5 million dollars. This was half of the 9 million that the district had to cut from its budget.

        Another measure of Dr. Witherspoon’s problems is the district’s test scores and the graduation rate. In 2019, Richland One’s graduation rate was a margin above the state average and below the national average. While Dr. Witherspoon claimed that AP scores went from 55.4 percent in 2018 to 58.1 percent in 2019, five schools passed less than 16 percent of their AP exams. Five of the seven high schools averaged way below the national average for ACT scores. 

        Not only do parents have grievances about budgeting problems, lack of fiscal transparency, lavish spending, academic progress, and infighting within the board, but parents also have many concerns about the district's COVID-19 response. There concerns aren't being answered or answered with vague statements. The districts new plan to reopen their schools is contingent upon the fact that schools must offer in-person instruction time by September 14th. Over 15% of new daily cases of South Carolina are coming back as positive since this past week. That number is way too high to even consider going back to school. Ideally, 0% is where we should be at, but in a global pandemic, 5% should be what we're at. Going back to school is not the option, especially so soon after the district starts virtually. It's disheartening to see the district fold to McMaster's incompetence, especially with very vague answers to parent's questions. 

        The problems don't end there. During a Dreher High Zoom meeting this year, a hacker played pornography during a Senior meeting. Parents criticized Dr. Witherspoon's response (or lack thereof) to this. On Twitter, Dr. Witherspoon blocked a parent who asked him about his response to this on his official Superintendent account. She has been unblocked since then, however it was only after the parent posted about it. Another problem that happened was his alleged lack of a response to continuous bullying of a young girl at Hand Middle. From 2015-2017, a young girl (who still shall remain anonymous to protect her identity) was violently bullied, to the point where she was pushed down the stairs, beaten with a water bottle. kicked from behind so hard she couldn't sit for a while, and hit with a backpack so hard that she chipped two teeth and bled so much. Allegedly, when her parents attempted to confront Dr. Witherspoon, he avoided them and was allegedly overhead saying that he was avoiding them.  

        As a student that walks the halls of a Richland One school, the frivolous spending and the lack of correct allocation of funding is abundantly clear. While the school board can match in their $700 jackets, many of my teachers are paying for classroom supplies out of their own pocket. The bathrooms are horrendously understocked and many times they’re not clean. While the arts teachers are struggling with fundraisers so they can do their jobs, the Board of Commissioners sit back and enjoy their thrones made of gold and their palace of diamond. I see many of my friends spiral into depression or anxiety , and while a homophobic pastor gets half a million for his erroneous program, my friends get suicidal because we don’t have adequate mental health services. The football players at Flora couldn’t play on their field for several months, but it’s all okay, because we get to induct people into a hall of fame that totally isn’t accruing a massive net loss. I know the district is more worried about our image than our kids, but I personally am sick of the lack of concern for America’s future.

        As for Chairman Devine, watching him blatantly disregard chairman Black’s second to delay a vote about a contract was absolutely disgusting. Chairman King was in the right for wanting to table a vote about a contract where Chairman Devine and Chairman Harris both had a clear conflict of interest. Funneling money into his wife’s pockets was not questioned by anyone else. As well, seeing Chairman Devine take advantage of the Black Lives Matter movement in order to set up a smokescreen for corruption is appalling. Black Lives Matter. Point blank period. However, chairman Devine making a vague threat to (rightful) critics of the school board and the Superintendent, as well as using phrases like “trust us”, “don’t question us”, and “about to get caught in the crossfire”, is not productive to the movement nor are they appropriate comments to make for someone with an office such as his.

        I end this letter with three demands. One, Dr. Witherspoon and Jamie Devine must step down as Richland One Superintendent and Board of Commissioners chairman. Two, the public must have a say about the Richland One fiscal budget in the future, as well as any contracts offered to future superintendents. Three, high school students must have a seat in the Richland One school board. All of these decisions are being made without addressing our needs, because you don’t know what they are. The Board of Commissioners is here to serve the students, and it’s quite obvious that is not the case.

Quite disgusted,
Concerned Student

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