- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The state Department of Juvenile Justice would take charge of a public residential school for students with behavior problems, under a budget measure approved Tuesday by the South Carolina House.

The House voted to give administrative oversight of John de la Howe School in McCormick to the Cabinet agency. The one-year takeover becomes part of the House budget plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Meanwhile, the school’s board would continue to operate but must seek input from the directors of DJJ, as well as the departments of education, mental health and social services. The House’s budget plan, in its second day of debate Tuesday, is expected to advance to the Senate later this week.

Rep. Kenny Bingham, who leads the subcommittee that writes the K-12 budget, said he plans to introduce a separate measure next week seeking to make the administrative switch sooner than July 1, to immediately begin hiring decisions.

“We’ve got to bring stability to the situation,” said Bingham, R-Cayce, whose subcommittee has questioned the school’s spending for three years. Improving the school “is not a money issue. It’s about direction and leadership.”

That leadership has crumbled since the inspector general released a critical review in January. It found the school spends excessively - at $87,000 per student annually - but doesn’t assess whether it’s successfully turning students’ lives around. Bingham said he gave the school’s leaders two weeks to respond and when they didn’t provide a sufficient plan, he suggested the state stop funding the school and instead place the students in private facilities.

Last month, the school’s principal and president, as well as the board’s chairwoman and vice-chairwoman, resigned.

In a letter to Bingham, Gov. Nikki Haley credited his subcommittee hearings for bringing results, but recommended DJJ’s intervention.

“This type of intervention is necessary in order for these children to receive the services they need and to make it possible for the John de la Howe School to regain the respect it once so richly deserved,” Haley wrote in the letter dated last Wednesday.

Interim president Danny Webb said he hadn’t seen the House amendment, so he declined to comment beyond saying, “The governor and governing bodies will do what they feel is appropriate.”

By law, the board consists of nine trustees, all appointed by the governor. As of Tuesday, there were five, Webb said.

John de la Howe was founded in 1797 for local poor and orphaned children. The school, a stand-alone state agency, now serves students with serious behavior problems who either have already been or on the verge of being expelled or failed from middle, high or alternative schools.

The residential school spent $5.4 million in the 2012-13 school year, with an average overnight enrollment of 54 students on a campus of 50 buildings on 1,200 acres. Over the last several years, the board has worked to improve the school’s buildings so they can accommodate more students, to a capacity of 116, which would lower its cost-per-student ratio, according to the inspector general’s report.

On Tuesday, 71 students were enrolled at the school, Webb said.

The school’s $87,000-per-student cost last school year compares to a statewide average of $11,000 per student from local, state and federal sources at conventional public schools, according to the state Department of Education.

Inspector General Patrick Maley recognized that John de la Howe’s costs will be much higher than a traditional public school because of the 24/7 setting, with an around-the-clock ratio of one staff to eight students. The staff includes behavior therapists, specialized teachers and after-school tutors. Still, that high cost should come with the expectation of improved behavior, he said.

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