- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The suspended president of financially troubled South Carolina State University sued the school on Tuesday for breaking his contract and asked the court where he filed suit to block his expected firing.

Thomas Elzey sued SC State in Orangeburg County court a day before trustees were set to meet privately to get legal advice amid ongoing turmoil involving South Carolina’s only public historically black university, which is wrestling with escalating debt. Last week, the trustees put Elzey on paid leave and promised to have more information on his fate Wednesday.

Under a four-year contract, which extends to summer 2017, Elzey can be fired only for cause. The lawsuit notes the suspension occurred less than two weeks after the board publicly backed him, despite legislators’ calls for his removal, and that trustees gave him a satisfactory review last summer.

Breaking his contract without cause would cost $428,000, which includes $30,000 for unused vacation, according to an estimate from state economic advisers, dated Tuesday.

Elzey’s lawsuit seeks more than that. While giving no specific amount, it asks for lost wages and benefits, as well as compensation for the ordeal’s emotional distress and embarrassment.

“We did try to resolve this prior to filing the complaint, and our efforts were not successful,” said his attorney, Nancy Bloodgood of Charleston.

SC State spokeswoman Sonja Bennett-Bellamy said the school had no comment on the ongoing legal matter.

Elzey is supposed to be paid $305,400 this year, with $173,400 funded by taxpayers and $132,000 by the school’s foundation. He also receives a $25,000 annual housing allowance and is entitled to six weeks of paid vacation, according to the Budget and Control Board.

The lawsuit seeks to maintain Elzey’s paid-leave status until the lawsuit’s resolved.

Meanwhile, the Legislature moved closer to firing all trustees.

A House panel advanced a measure Tuesday to the full Ways and Means Committee that would put the state’s financial oversight board temporarily in charge of the university until it gets out of debt. The measure also requires the board, chaired by Gov. Nikki Haley, to fire Elzey.

Also on Tuesday, senators voted to give priority status to Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman’s version of the idea, clearing the way for floor debate Wednesday. That fast-tracked proposal would create a new, five-member board to oversee SC State, with its members appointed by Leatherman and other GOP leaders. Elzey would not necessarily be fired.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, objected, saying five white, Republican legislators should not decide all appointees to the historically black school. He said alumni should be more involved.

But Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia, asked his colleagues to support the measure.

“The time has come for us to do the right thing and move all the personalities and all the egos out of the way,” said Jackson, whose nephew is a junior at SC State.

A compromise between the versions could be difficult.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said Leatherman’s plan swaps “one set of good ol’ boys with another.” That only punts the problem further down the road, said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston.

Both measures were introduced to replace a House panel’s short-lived proposal raised Feb. 10 to temporarily close the school for a massive overhaul.

The stunner brought immediate backlash. But Rep. Harold Mitchell, former chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, thanked Merrill’s panel Tuesday for “getting us to look at the facts and getting this General Assembly to take action.”

“The lights were about to be turned off last month. It that had not come up, there would not be a can to kick past April,” said Mitchell, D-Spartanburg.

SC State owes more than $11 million in unpaid bills, despite receiving $7.5 million from the state in the last year in separate bailouts.

It has been on accreditation probation since last summer. Elzey has blamed the financial woes on the yearslong decline in enrollment, coupled with a drop in state and federal funding, while the school spent as if nothing had changed.

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