Academy for Career Excellence board hires law firm to look into funding cut

The Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence board says the bickering must stop if the embattled vocational school is to be successful.

To help reach that goal, the board voted Wednesday to hire Boykin & Davis, a Columbia-based law firm.

Board chairwoman Alina Hamilton-Clark would not say exactly what type of counsel the firm would provide. However, several topics mentioned during board discussion included the legislation that created the school several decades ago and the Beaufort County Board of Education's decision to reduce its funding to ACE.

In its 2014-15 budget, the county school board decided to provide only $2.1 million of the $2.3 million ACE requested. Several county school board members have also discussed dropping out of their partnership with ACE, which is jointly funded by the Jasper County School District, and expanding vocational education at district high schools.

Hamilton-Clark said money is allotted for "legal fees" in the school's budget, but doesn't know how much will be needed to retain Boykin & Davis until the board discusses the scope of the firm's work further.

"I think we need someone to give us legal advice on the agreement that created ACE and is between Beaufort and Jasper counties, to tell us what authority the two districts have," said ACE board member Earl Campbell, who also serves on the Beaufort County school board.

Two of the six ACE board members -- Randy Horton from Jasper County and Jim Beckert from Beaufort County -- voted against hiring Boykin & Davis, whose website lists "school law" as one of its practices.

Horton said seeking counsel would be a waste of money. He believes the Beaufort County school board is legally entitled to reduce its contribution to ACE.

"This is just spending money that should go in the classroom," Horton said. "The Beaufort board's decision is no different than their budget or Jasper's budget being cut by their councils."

Beckert said he didn't have enough information on why the board was seeking legal counsel.

The four board members who approved the decision said they hope it will help the ACE board better understand the agreement and move forward.

"Every time I come here, I feel like I am in a hostile environment," ACE and Jasper County school board member Tedd Moyd said.

Michael Rivers, who made the motion to hire the law firm, agreed during the meeting.

"There may be the desire to create chaos so we don't accomplish anything," said Rivers, who also is a Beaufort County school board member. "And it creates an atmosphere in the public that we can't accomplish anything."

Campbell said ACE board members argue at every meeting, and he doesn't know what all the arguing is about. But it's preventing the board from getting business done, he said.

Moyd and Campbell said they hope the board can discuss its behavior at a retreat June 27 so members can decide the school's direction.

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