Dueling lawsuits, low performance scores and a federal investigation in the Jasper County School District culminated Thursday in the announcement that its superintendent Vashti Washington will resign.
The Jasper County School District Board of Trustees voted 7-2 to approve a resignation settlement for Washington on Thursday following a two-hour closed door session, with board members Berty Riley and Bennie Hazel voting no.
As part of the agreement, the superintendent will step down Dec. 31, but will continue to receive her $165,000 salary and serve as a consultant through 2016.
Washington was hired as superintendent in 2010 and her contract was renewed through 2018 in a vote by board members last year. The payment of $165,000 was stipulated as a condition of terminating her contract. But as part of Thursday's settlement Washington also agreed to the be available as a consultant to her successor should the need arise.
District officials say the resignation was amicable.
"The board wants to have the opportunity to select its own educational leadership and Dr. Washington desires to move on to new challenges," school board chairman Tedd Moyd said in a statement Thursday.
An interim superintendent search will begin this month, Moyd added.
The resignation follows an overhaul of the Jasper County school board in September when a special election brought four newcomers onto the nine-member board. Most of the new members were critics of Washington's leadership and proponents for change to improve the district's consistently low standardized test scores.
The school district has not improved its rank of "at risk" -- the lowest possible score -- on the state report cards since 2009. And in October 2014, it received its third consecutive "F" grade on the federal report card.
New board members saw the scores as cause for a change in leadership, said newly elected board member Kevin Karg. Other big changes will follow, he said, including a focus on teacher retention, an effort to reduce class sizes in lower grades and more outreach to parents.
"This is a very dramatic first step and we don't take it lightly," Karg said. "But we see this as just the beginning of changes for the good for the students. It's a fresh start."
Karg and other district leaders said the resignation came from a culmination of disagreements over the management of the district, including class sizes that were too big and unspecified financial management issues, rather than any one specific act by Washington.
The school distinct is also being investigated by the FBI and others for undisclosed reasons.
Washington was unavailable for comment as of press time Friday, but issued a statement saying she was proud of the improvements the school district had made during her five-year tenure.
"This has been a challenging year for me and for the Jasper County community, but we are coming out of it stronger than ever," Washington wrote, whose husband died in June. "Our students' test scores are improving, our school district's operations are running smoothly, and our faculty and staff are better than ever."
During her four years heading the district some community members organized rallies calling for accountability in the district leadership.
"There's been so much negativity from the school board and others about her," said Blaine Lotz, a Hilton Head Island resident and supporter of Washington. He and others volunteer with school district programs, including one that mentors elementary school students. "She is so dedicated to the kids and their parents. My view is this pressure just continued and she probably got sick of it."
Washington also faced a federal investigation and two lawsuits from a school board member during her tenure as superintendent.
An probe by the FBI, the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS, and the S.C. Law Enforcement Division that was launched in March 2014 into alleged criminal activity in the Jasper County School District is ongoing, school board members said.
District officials were not given details as to the cause or subject of the investigation, but agents from the divisions searched the district office and subpoenaed several members of the district in March 2014.
They requested that the district not destroy certain information: all district financial documents; employment files for the superintendent and other administrators; board meeting minutes; and correspondence between employees.
District officials have not been informed of any developments from the agencies and say Washington's resignation was not directly related to the investigation, said school board attorney Ken Childs with Columbia-based Childs & Halligan on Friday.
There have been no charges filed as a result of the investigation, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office of South Carolina.
Washington was also caught up in a legal battle with school board member Randy Horton, who she sued in April 2014 alleging he "slandered and libeled" her and influenced the federal investigation of the school district.
Washington said Horton tried to destroy her reputation by making a series of untrue claims, including that she had falsified documents, conspired to have fraudulent bids filed and committed illegal acts, according to the suit filed April 7, 2014 in the Court of Common Pleas in Jasper County.
Horton has also publicly questioned whether Washington had a doctorate degree, which records show that she completed at Nova Southeastern University in 2003.
Horton filed a counterclaim in June 2014, claiming Washington's lawsuit equated to harassment.
A settlement in the initial suit was filed Friday, according to court records, but attorneys for both Horton and Washington could not be reached Friday for details of the settlement.
Read outgoing Jasper County School District superintendent Vashti Washington's statement:
Vashti Williams' original contract as Jasper County School District superintendent:
Follow reporter Erin Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_erinh.
*This story was updated to remove the comments of a Jasper County resident. (9:15 p.m. Dec. 11, 2015)
- Jasper school district given no details in federal probe, March 10, 2014
- Jasper school board member calls superintendent's suit harassment, June 26
- After redistricting, most incumbents re-elected for Jasper County school board, September 22, 2014