- Associated Press - Friday, February 20, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s most powerful legislator has joined a growing number of people who say the leadership of financially troubled South Carolina State University needs to go.

A proposal introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman would replace the school’s entire board with a temporary one appointed by him and other lawmakers. Co-sponsors include the chamber’s Democratic leader as well as two senators who graduated from South Carolina’s only public historically black college.

The new board would decide whether to fire embattled President Thomas Elzey.

The proposal, introduced Thursday, signals that senators are ready to take drastic action to make the university financially solvent.

Leatherman told The State newspaper he has lost faith in S.C. State’s trustees since a legislative panel he chairs agreed in December to grant the school $12 million over three years. The school received the first $1.5 million payment soon after, but the amount it owes for unpaid bills has grown - by $1 million to $11 million.

That’s in addition to a $6 million state loan the school received last spring and can’t pay back.

“I wanted to give them that opportunity to show the General Assembly that they were serious about what had to be done,” Leatherman, R-Florence, told the newspaper. “It’s obvious to everyone that they seem to keep getting deeper and deeper in the hole.”

The House Ways and Means Committee advanced a similar idea earlier this week. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and his wife, both 1961 graduates of S.C. State, also called this week for the leadership’s ousting. A main difference in all three ideas is the makeup of the board that would temporarily take over.

Board Chairman William Small said Friday the university’s legislatively elected trustees are being unfairly disparaged.

“This situation could have and should have been handled in a much more professional and substantially less damaging manner,” Small said. “I sadly feel that South Carolina State University has experienced irreparable short-term damage. … My hope and prayer is that the histrionics will cease and that better judgment and reason will somehow find a place at the table.”

Small is among the 60 percent of trustees who came aboard after Elzey was hired in spring 2013.

Last week, the Legislative Black Caucus called for Elzey’s resignation. But he refused, and trustees backed him up.

The calls for new leadership followed a Ways and Means panel’s stunning proposal to temporarily close the school and reopen it in 2017 after a massive overhaul. Senators immediately pledged to kill the proposal, and even in the House, its chances were dim.

But it reflected the growing frustration of lawmakers who say university officials aren’t providing requested information or a realistic path to solvency.

“I don’t think anybody wants to see South Carolina State closed, and I hope that’s never a serious conversation,” but the frustration is legitimate, Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday. “We want to help you but you’re not helping yourself.”

SC State is digging out of a hole created by years of declining enrollment, along with a drop in state funding and federal changes that made many students ineligible for grants. Despite the shrinking revenue, the school continued to spend as if nothing had changed, Elzey has said.

Last week, a group of current and former S.C. State students filed a federal lawsuit against the state, saying lawmakers damaged the school’s enrollment by not providing enough funding and by allowing other public colleges to offer the same courses taught at the Orangeburg school.

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