COLUMBIA — A South Carolina legislator says she “will not be intimidated or silenced” by a demand that she publicly apologize for questioning the superintendent of downtown Columbia schools during an online discussion about the pandemic’s impact on education.
Jamie Devine, chairman of the Richland One school board, accused Columbia Democratic Rep. Beth Bernstein of launching a “disrespectful and unnecessary” attack against Superintendent Craig Witherspoon during a Dec. 15 webinar she was invited to join. No school board member was on the call.
“Since this unfortunate situation was done publicly, I expect a public apology,” he wrote in his Dec. 18 letter to her.
Bernstein refused, saying she did no such thing. Rather, it was Witherspoon who was rude and disrespectful to her for asking questions she’s been trying to get answers on for months without success, she said.
Neither Devine nor Witherspoon immediately responded Thursday to requests for comment.
Bernstein said Witherspoon took a similarly dismissive tone with her and GOP Rep. Kirkman Finlay during an Oct. 6 virtual meeting arranged so they could ask him about the many concerns they were hearing from local parents. Bernstein said Witherspoon simply accused parents of lying.
“I regret that you created this controversy,” she wrote back to Devine on Wednesday. “These baseless attacks on me only further demonstrate why there is much discontent in our community about District One.”
Richland One was among the last school districts in the state to bring any students back into the classroom this fall. A hybrid mix of in-person and online learning began the week of Halloween. The state’s ninth-largest school district will return to virtual-only learning for two weeks after the winter break ends Jan. 4.
Devine, a Richland One school board member since 2008, took over in December as president of the state School Boards Association.
His letter referred to a webinar sponsored by the Hunt Institute, a North Carolina -based organization that connects educators with local policymakers. Witherspoon and several Columbia-area legislators were on the call, but no school board member.
“Your treatment of Dr. Witherspoon during this meeting is unacceptable,” Devine wrote. “Certainly, none of us would publicly chastise a member of your staff, in private or in public, and we would appreciate the same respect as elected officials.”
During the call, Bernstein referred to a petition signed by 1,000 parents and sent to her office about their frustrations — the same petition she says the superintendent previously dismissed.
“I was astonished to be treated so rudely by him, and I can understand why parents feel their voices are not being heard,” she wrote in her response to Devine. She added that Witherspoon was also “rude and condescending to our legislative aide, who is also female,” and who set up that October meeting.
She suggested Devine’s time would be better spent addressing parents’ concerns.
“This behavior would not even warrant an apology. What about saying ‘sorry’ to the thousands of parents who have had their complaints unheard? That’s where the apology needs to go,” Bernstein told The Post and Courier on Thursday.
Bernstein said her constituents deserved answers, and that it’s not normal for a state legislator’s office to be so bombarded about local school decisions.
Finlay, a Columbia Republican, defended his colleague Thursday, saying concerns from Richland One parents are filling his email inbox too.
“Sort of a cross between anger and frustration, feeling like their questions are going unanswered and their voices aren’t being heard and their concerns are being summarily dismissed,” he said.
Bernstein called her remarks on the invitation-only webinar appropriate, considering the topic and her previous questions going unanswered.
But fellow Democratic Rep. Kambrell Garvin, of Blythewood, said the situation could’ve been handled differently.
The most appropriate way to resolve disagreements would be a meeting between Witherspoon, Devine and legislators, he said.
“At the end of the day, it’s about kids and making sure our children are properly educated,” Garvin said.
Bernstein, who easily won a fifth term in November, said she’s had a collegial relationship with Devine in the past, and his letter represents a first.
“I actually have never, from anybody, been demanded to make a public apology, and I’ll never apologize for doing things on behalf of my constituents,” she said.
But the flare-up is not the first time a Richland County legislator has refused to publicly apologize for being critical.
Asked to apologize for a “profanity-laced tirade” directed at a legislative staffer over a missing item in a news release, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian agreed in December 2019 to keep his language clean in the future, but made clear he still believes the delegation’s employees are a waste of Richland County taxpayers’ money.
Stephen Fastenau contributed to this report.
Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.