Inside Greenville Plan meeting

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a multi-part series of interviews conducted between Courier staff reporter Nicole Daughhetee and SDPC board trustee Jim Shelton, a former board chair.

By the time I started covering SDPC board meetings nearly two years ago, the building plan had been dissected and discussed, ad nauseum, funding had been secured and construction at several sites was well under way.
As someone new to journalism, local politics and school board meetings, the funding program known colloquially as the Greenville Plan, meant absolutely nothing to me.
Acronyms like SCAGO (the South Carolina Association of Governmental Organizations), IPP (Installment Purchase Plan), GO (General Obligation) bonds or TANs (Tax Anticipation Notes) might have been some sort of texting slang like LOL or TTYL for all I knew.
Initially I felt like I needed an interpreter just to understand and keep up with what was going on in the meetings. What I sensed immediately is that the Greenville Plan — regardless of how many times it had been questioned and/or defended, was still a sore spot for many of the people in Pickens County.
Because it seemed such a hot-button topic, and because no matter how many times it has been explained to me I’ve never fully grasped all the ins, outs and what-have-yous, it was inevitable that I would ask Jim Shelton about the Greenville Plan and the building plan.
I figured if I were curious, other inquiring minds would want to know and understand a complete picture of the current SDPC building plan coming to fruition.
“The Greenville plan started innocently — at least from my perspective,” Shelton said. “And I’m looking at this through my eyes. Not the eyes of anyone else.
“Shortly after the election and the swearing-in ceremony in 2006, I got a phone call from then-superintendent Lee D’Andrea inviting me to a meeting in Greenville at the office of the McNair law firm.”
Timing is everything. According to Shelton, his meeting was scheduled on the Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving. I mention this simply because it might seem coincidental that the course of events that unfolded following this meeting … well, as Shelton said, people will draw their own conclusions and develop their own interpretation of the events.
“My understanding is that the meeting was going to be a learning and work session about school bonds, which excited me because I knew very little about it,” Shelton said. “This was going to be a first step out, and I was going to learn some things because I knew sooner or later I was going to have to deal with these things. I didn’t realize how much sooner ‘sooner’ would be.
“We showed up for the meeting in the board room at the McNair law office. In the room were the then-finance director of the school district, the facilities director, and, of course, Dr. D’Andrea was there,” explained Shelton. “A lawyer with the firm, was there. Also in attendance was another newly elected board member, Kevin Kay. As we walked into the room, there sat two other board members: Shirley Jones (who then held the chair) and Jim Bryce, who was on the board at the time.
“And I remember the first question I asked as I looked around the room because this is, remember, the first time I’ve been in any setting where I’m now a board member. So the first question I asked as I looked around the room was ‘Where’s the rest of the board?’” said Shelton. “The response I got was if you have a quorum, you have to notify the press that a meeting is taking place. I didn’t think much about it. I sat down. Pleasantries were exchanged around the table, and the meeting started.”
Based on his narrative, each individual in the room was handed a numbered copy of a Powerpoint presentation about 15 to 20 pages in length. Along with the handout was an explanation of how bonds work, the definitions of millage and relative value, the mechanisms for voting on such issues. For all intents and purposes, the meeting was education at the outset.
At this point in our conversation, Shelton tells me he is not a suspicious man by nature, but there was a palpable tension in the room that he could not ignore.
“I glanced around the room just looking at people and I sensed a tense nervousness on the part of some people. Immediately, my radar went up,” said Shelton. “As I listened to the presentation, I flipped through my handout to the back page. On the back page was a proposal for a 40-mill tax increase to pay for the bond issue through the installment purchase plan, which is colloquially known as the Greenville Plan.
“I looked up and said ‘This isn’t about education and bonds. This is about a tax increase,’” said Shelton. “The meeting stopped at that point. I can’t remember the exact questions, but I remember looking across the table and asking how this proposal was going to be presented.”
“This has to be presented as a tax increase.”
“This is a massive tax increase.”
Both thoughts Shelton says he could not quiet.
“There was some justification given at that point based on condition of buildings, number of portable classrooms — all very valid reasons to explain the need for securing funds for a building plan,” said Shelton. “I just kind of tuned out the presentation because, at that point, the education is no longer needed. I know why I’m there, and I’m very uncomfortable with the whole situation and I’m disappointed.”
Once the presentation concluded, Shelton said he asked when the rest of the board would receive this information. The answer he got was that it had already been presented. His next question: “What was their reaction to it?” Answer: “They all support it.”
Shelton raises his eyebrows as he tells me this part: “All, I asked.”
“They said, well, we haven’t presented this to Mr. Saitta yet. I asked when they planned to present it to Alex,” said Shelton. “Well we’re going to do that tomorrow afternoon.”
This brings us back to the relativity of time. When the meeting took place, “tomorrow” would have been Tuesday afternoon — the Tuesday prior to Thanksgiving Thursday 2006.
“The presentation that I attended was on Monday of Thanksgiving week. The presentation for Alex was going to be on Tuesday,” recounts Shelton. “Now this is my reading between the lines, but what’s significant about those times?”
What is significant about those days? And what does a holiday, popularly associated with football games and gluttonous eating, have to do with any of this? Again, readers will draw their own conclusions, but consider this: most local newspapers, like The Courier for example, go to press at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. With Thanksgiving on the horizon, business offices are pretty much going to be shut down on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
“After my meeting I’m thinking and I’m very confused at this point,” Shelton said. “I’m trying to find information. Is this a good idea? Is this a bad idea? Is there a sustentative plan behind it? Is it just a financing scam? The Greenville Plan wasn’t illegal at the time, and I think people need to remember this.”
“I have heard it referred to as an illegal scheme, and I’m certainly not a big fan of it. I’ve never been a supporter of it, but the truth is the truth,” said Shelton. “People can say it was underhanded, that it was dastardly, you can apply whatever subjective moniker you want to it, but of all those things it was not illegal. It was perfectly legal under S.C. State Law.”