There’s a well-heeled group spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just on TV this year to win control of the Charleston County School Board.
The Charleston Coalition for Kids, which keeps its backers private, is behind five so-called reformer candidates they say are needed to bring about change in the system.
To do that, they have especially targeted two incumbents for removal.
And they are spending a lot of money to do it.
According to public records compiled by the Federal Communications Commission and inspected by The Post and Courier, the 501(c)4 nonprofit has spent more than $306,000 for television advertising, and there is still just over two weeks to go before Election Day.
These records present only a glimpse into the coalition’s total spending, since South Carolina’s campaign finance law does not require nonprofits and other groups that spend money on independent advertising campaigns to reveal how much money they raised and spent or who their donors are.
That’s how so-called “dark money groups” legally operate in the state to help influence political outcomes.
The $306,000 doesn’t include any spending on other forms of advertising, such as radio and print content, or sponsored social media posts, which are extremely difficult to trace through public records.
Josh Bell, a former educator and executive director of the coalition, said the group’s sole focus is turning around Charleston County School District’s historically poor record of serving and educating minority students.
“We’re committed to improving our public schools because the status quo is not working,” Bell said. “We believe that every child, no matter their ZIP code should have the opportunity for an excellent education in Charleston.”
The slate they are endorsing includes five of the 16 candidates seeking open seats on the nine-member body.
Dozens of parents and education advocates have been vocal in their disapproval of the group’s spending and campaign tactics, which have included purchasing attack ads against two sitting board members who are running for reelection.
Those members are the Rev. Chris Collins and Kevin Hollinshead. Both have been featured in negative ads sponsored by the group.
“The Coalition for Kids, we watched them essentially last time buy over half of the board,” state Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston, said last week, referring to the group’s effort in the 2018 election.
“Now they want to buy the whole board,” he added. “That is not right.”
But other parents and community leaders have praised the coalition’s commitment to improving access to education for low-income students and children of color.
A lot is at stake this year. All four school board members endorsed by the coalition in 2018 won. If the five candidates that have received the coalition’s support this year are successful in November, the entire nine-member board will have been backed by the group.
Critics of the coalition say they are skeptical of the group’s intentions. They fear that a nine-member board endorsed by the group could result in a push to create more public-private school partnerships, a move they say will result in less oversight, transparency and accountability.
This isn’t the first time the group has gotten involved with the school board race. It spent at least $235,000 on TV ads alone leading up to the last election in 2018.
That’s because real changes and improvements for Charleston County students starts with leadership at the top, Bell said.
Some of the coalition’s early supporters included billionaires Anita Zucker, CEO of the InterTech Group, and Sherman Financial Group founder Ben Navarro.
Zucker said she appreciates the coalition’s work but has never been a donor. Bell declined to say whether Navarro had donated to the coalition, citing the group’s policy to not disclose the names of individual donors or how much they have given.
Doing so, Bell said, distracts from the coalition’s primary goal of improving the public education system.
Others are more open about their support. Joe Riley, Charleston’s popular former mayor, has been outspoken in his support for the coalition and its mission. He even appears in one of the coalition’s television ads this year endorsing the group’s chosen candidates.
“It’s a terrific group,” Riley told The Post and Courier. “The most important thing is the work that we can do on attracting and helping elect the best school board members.”
In response to concerns some parents have raised over the groups’ non-disclosure policy and secretive spending, Bell said the coalition follows all rules and regulations.
“We are proud of our work to help elect high-quality school board members who use every tool they can to put students first,” he said.
Sixteen candidates are vying for five open slots on the board. This includes two North Charleston seats, two West Ashley seats and one seat representing downtown.
All Charleston County voters can cast votes for all five open seats, regardless of the geographic area they represent.
Last week, the coalition announced a slate of five candidates: Incumbent Chris Fraser, Kids On Point Director Lauren Herterich, software engineer and former constituent board member Charles Monteith, Building Excellent Schools Director of Finance Hunter Schimpff and Teach For America Senior Managing Director Courtney Waters.
“These candidates understand the role of the school board, are urgent about putting kids at the top of every agenda and will do whatever it takes to make progress that for far too long has not happened,” Bell said.
Bell has repeatedly emphasized that the coalition does not have a set formula for its endorsed candidates to adhere to if elected. The coalition’s sole priority, he said, is to improve students’ education.
The attack ads
Television attacks ads paid for the coalition that targeted Hollinshead and Collins have received swift pushback from North Charleston faith leaders, legislators and activists.
One ad took aim at Hollinshead, citing a 2006 lawsuit in which an insurance company sued him for fraud.
A different ad criticized Collins for voting to approve a $14,428 salary for board members in 2017. It also pointed out that Collins had accumulated over $20,000 in late fines and penalties over the past eight years, according to the Ethics Commission.
On Oct. 8, a dozen or so activists and elected officials, including state Reps. Marvin Pendarvis and Mack, went so far as to host a news conference calling on the coalition to issue a public apology and pull the commercials from TV.
Bell has said he does not plan to do either. Everything included in the ads is factual, he said, and they were created to help the public make informed decisions at the ballot box.
“We need school board members who are actually committed to change. For too long we have had some school board members that have put their own interests ahead of students,” Bell said.
The coalition’s spending on TV ads alone eclipses what all the other 16 candidates have reported raising for their campaigns combined, according to candidate filings with the State Ethics Commission.
That’s because people can’t contribute more than $1,000 to candidates in local political races in South Carolina.
Meanwhile, the Charleston Coalition for the Kids can raise unlimited sums of money from a single person if they wanted to. Because of a 2010 federal court ruling, the state Ethics Commission doesn’t even try to police that type of political spending, which has exploded in South Carolina in recent years.
School board candidates are only required to report their finances once they have raised or spent $500 or more on their campaign. Once they reach that threshold, they are required to report it to the commission within 10 days.
As of Friday, three candidates had not submitted any campaign finance information to the agency.
Board members finalized dozens of so-called “mission critical” changes last year designed to better serve students at low-performing schools.
But change hasn’t come easy.
Several of the changes, including attempts to solicit applications from third-party operators to manage low-performing schools, were met with fierce community opposition from parents and teachers.
Members of the Charleston County legislative delegation even met with the board to ask that they hold off on several of the contentious changes.
Charleston education activists have criticized some of the mission critical changes as attempts to privatize schools and reduce transparency. These efforts, they say, were backed by coalition-endorsed candidates in 2018.
One group, the Charleston Area Community Voice for Education, has actively worked to inform and educate parents about the dark money tactics that have been used in the school board race.
“When you see this amount of money in a local school board race, it’s pretty outrageous,” said group co-leader Sarah Shad Johnson. “We feel like it’s important to shed light on that so that voters aren’t manipulated by what they see on TV.”
If anything, she hopes the group’s efforts this year will ultimately be used to strengthen South Carolina’s campaign ethics laws.
“Anonymous secret groups in a school board race, I think, is just an attack on our democracy and an attack on our community,” she said.