Friday, August 19, 2011

Purge at ETV is no surprise, thanks to Haley board

I'm still curious about The State's coverage of the recent purge of 17 employees from South Carolina Educational Television. Writer Gina Smith covered the subject a couple of weeks ago with a slight tone of surprise:

ETV may have won its veto war with Gov. Nikki Haley, but it still is losing employees.

Educational Television said Tuesday it is eliminating 15 full-time and two part-time positions because of a 10 percent cut in its state budget and other funds, including federal grants. Also, six additional positions that are open will not be filled.

That leaves fewer than 150 employees at the state’s public educational broadcasting network, which also, among other things, offers a multimedia educational system to more than 2,500 of the state’s schools, colleges, businesses and government agencies.

Smith quoted SCETV's spokesman, Rob Schaller, explaining as blithely as possible that the job cuts would be implemented so as not to negatively impact SCETV's core services.

And while Schaller reported that the job cuts came from across the agency, he took pains to note that Mark Quinn, longtime and well-known former host of SCETV's "The Big Picture," had not been purged.

But Smith cast her story as news because the legislature voted to override Her Excellency Nikki Haley's veto of SCETV's budget. Her takeaway seemed to be that Haley lost that battle but may be winning her war against SCETV anyway.

No kidding.

Yes, Haley's succeeding in her attack on SCETV, and in her purge of its workforce, not because she attempted to slash its budget but because she exercised a dangerous executive power earlier this spring: She wiped clean the SCETV Commission and installed her own minions in its seats, utterly and completely, overnight, tout de suite.

In one fell swoop, she replaced an experienced, veteran board of directors with a band of green johnny-come-latelies whose only credit was their collective support for Haley and her ideology.

And, indeed, it was reported by The State, under the headline "Steep learning curve for new leaders at ETV." The handwriting was on the wall, folks. And there's still a lot of it left there.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s clean sweep of ETV’s board means a group with little institutional knowledge will plot Educational Television’s future through what Haley promises will be major changes.

Fresh perspectives sometimes can be a positive, ETV backers acknowledged Friday. But they also expressed concern the new commission members will make course-changing decisions about ETV’s future without a solid understanding of its past.

For example, Haley has pledged to cut public money that goes to ETV.

“What worries me is if people go in there thinking they know what ETV means, thinking it’s just ‘Masterpiece Theater,’ and they make decisions without being educated,” said Caroline Whitson, president of Columbia College and the fundraising ETV Endowment Board. “They could make decisions that long-term have very detrimental effects on this state without realizing what they’ve done.”

Indeed, Ms. Whitson. No better explanation could be offered for the significance of Haley's action. And no better illustration that elections have consequences.

Let's recall why SCETV is important to South Carolina in the first place:

ETV, created in 1960, operates a statewide network of 11 television stations, eight radio stations and a closed-circuit telecommunications system.

Its system allows rural students to tap into lessons otherwise unavailable to them. Teachers and law enforcement agencies also rely heavily on ETV for training sessions. No other broadcast media has such statewide reach, which is important in emergency situations, Whitson said.

The programming on ETV and ETV Radio is paid for by donations, but state money pays for the agency’s buildings and equipment, and the salaries of nearly 170 employees.

South Carolinians -- their families, their children -- who lacked easy access to cities and cultural resources found there, could collect some small degree of self-improvement through the content delivered by SCETV, regardless of where they lived in the state. Because SCETV's mission was not motivated by profit, it could take time, develop content and focus on the dissemination of high-quality programming.

And its Commission, stocked with highly-qualified professionals who understood and supported SCETV's mission, was there to guide it.

Not anymore.

ETV president Linda O’Bryon, hired last year, runs ETV’s day-to-day operations. The ETV Commission — seven members appointed by the governor along with the state superintendent of education — sets policy.

Commissioners have staggered six-year terms, designed to prevent just the kind of clean sweep that Haley made. But former Gov. Mark Sanford made only two appointments to the board, and those were early in his eight-year term. As a result, the terms of many of the commission’s seven members had expired, but they continued serving.

Robert Rainey of Anderson, removed this week as the commission’s chairman, said he asked Sanford to name new board members, but the former governor “did not see it was a priority.”

Haley has the right to name a new board which shares her approach to ETV, said Rainey, brother of Haley critic John Rainey.

Yes, that John Rainey, the one who has called Haley the most corrupt person to occupy the Governor's Mansion since Reconstruction. Harsh words, from someone who has been part of South Carolina's ruling class for a long, long time.

But, Robert Rainey added, turning over the entire board at once “is unfortunate because there’s zero continuity. (superintendent of education) Dr. (Mick) Zais has been to one meeting.”

O, how could we forget. General Mick Zais, our su-pretendent of education, occupies one of the seats on the Commission, too. So much for the "educational" quality of South Carolina Educational Television.

The new commissioners face a steep learning curve, Rainey said.

“I don’t think the general public — outside of K-12 (teachers and administrators), law enforcement and the Legislature — really understands what ETV does,” Rainey said. “They think we’re really just radio and broadcasting, and that’s like looking only at the part of the iceberg above water.”

And who exactly did Haley install in the place of SCETV's veteran commissioners?

Besides new chairman Nelson, a political science professor at Furman University, the other new commission members are Jill Kelso of Murrells Inlet, Elise Bidwell of Columbia, Zeda Homoki of Aiken, Joseph Millwood of Landrum, Robert McCoy of Heath Springs and Nicole Holland of Columbia.

Haley’s appointments include a number of GOP politicians. Nelson originally said he would to run for governor in 2010, then switched to the superintendent of education’s race, finishing fifth in a six-candidate Republican primary. Millwood is a former member of the S.C. House who lost a re-election bid in 2010. McCoy also lost a 2010 House race.

The commissioners they replace include Rainey and former Sanford staffer Chris Drummond, Sanford’s two appointees, and five pre-Sanford holdovers.

Another media outlet published a bit more detail on the new commission:

Dr. Brent Nelsen, Greenville -appointment to the At-large Chair seat with a term of 6/23/08 to 6/23/14. He took the expired seat of Robert Rainey of Anderson. Nelsen is chair of the political science department at Furman University. He received his undergraduate degree from Wheaton College and a PhD in Political Science at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the President of the South Carolina Political Science Association and is an elder at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Travelers Rest.

Jill Kelso, Murrells Inlet - appointment to the 1st District seat with a term of 6/23/10 to 6/23/16. She took the expired seat of Christopher Drummond of Mt. Pleasant. She graduated with a B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh.

Elise Bidwell, Columbia - appointment to the 2nd District seat with a term of 6/23/10 to 6/23/16. She took the expired seat of David (Chris) Goodall of Columbia. Bidwell graduated with a B.S. from NC State and currently is a financial advisor at Edward Jones.

Zeda Homoki, Aiken - appointment to the 3rd District seat with a term of 6/23/06 to 6/23/12. She took the expired seat of William Self of Greenwood. Homoki has a B.S. from the University of Houston. She has lived in South Carolina for 7 years and is currently retired.

Joseph Millwood, Landrum - appointment to the 4th District seat with a term of 6/30/08 to 6/30/14. He took the expired seat of Wendell Cantrell of Spartanburg. Millwood graduated in 2005 from USC Upstate and is currently working toward his Master's degree. Millwood is former SC House member. He currently is a freelance writer for the Spartanburg Herald and The Tryon Daily Bulletin.

Rob McCoy, Heath Springs - appointment to the 5th District seat with a term of 6/23/10 to 6/23/16. He took the expired seat of Thomas Brown from Sumter. McCoy owns a small business, McCoy Motors out of Lancaster.

Nicole Holland, Columbia - appointment to the 6th District seat with a term of 6/30/08 to 6/30/14. She took the expired seat of Lee Gaillard from Charleston. She has a BA in Broadcast Journalism and African American Studies. She currently is the Director of Communications for the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Solicitor's Office.

And Haley's man Godfrey was tickled to report that Haley was "excited to have found a group of appointees who share her priorities and vision for ETV."

Blogger Jamie Sanderson addressed the nature of those priorities and vision here.

A quick look at the SCETV Commission's current webpage, however, shows that the Fourth Congressional District is now represented by Karen Martin of Woodruff rather than Millwood. There was apparently no public announcement of Martin's appointment, and no public explanation of Millwood's replacement. Martin, it appears, is the organizer of the Spartanburg Tea Party but has no other discernible experience in public service.

But others have tried. Nelsen, for example, was once a candidate for state superintendent of education, though his professional background was in political science, not education. McCoy, a Tea Party activist, was a candidate for state Senate once. Kelso ran for state House once and collected campaign contributions from voucher proponent Howard Rich.

Since the SCETV Commission does have responsibility for promoting education in the state, here's another interesting aspect of Haley's choices. Only one member holds a degree from a college or university in South Carolina: Holland, a USC graduate. And one other member was educated in South Carolina's public schools: McCoy, who graduated from Andrew Jackson High School in Lancaster County.

There's no accessible data on Homoki or Martin, so their educational backgrounds are uncertain.

Homoki, an Aiken retiree, is listed as a donor ($1-$149) to the Friends of USC-Aiken in 2009-2010, but it's unclear if she is an alumna. What's crystal-clear is her devotion to Haley, as noted in the Aiken Chronicle this week:

Zee Homoki voted for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley because of what she promised during her campaign. Now in the first year of her term, Homoki says Haley has kept each of those promises and then some.

“I really think she’s awesome,” Homoki said at the Aiken Republican Club meeting on Tuesday. Haley was the keynote speaker.

Homoki saw Haley at a luncheon more than two years ago and said she immediately knew Haley was a standout candidate.

“We can’t say enough about her,” Homoki said.

Indeed, though it was so little, that is quite enough.

In the final analysis, with one or two exceptions, Haley has seated a group of commissioners who largely share her view of government, who largely share no deep or meaningful devotion to South Carolina's people or culture, but who share an activist urge to shrink the agency and privatize its services.

“We’re going to find ETV thinking more and more like a business,” commission chairman Nelson said, adding would free the millions in state money that previously went to ETV to go, for example, police officers. “All we’re talking about is finding other ways to fund it so the taxpayers can have some relief.”

So the purge of 17 positions should come as no surprise, and those who survived this cut should expect more rounds of cuts to come.

Elections have consequences, and these are unpleasant. As the Irish say, What cannot be cured must be endured.

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