Feuding Nonprofit Leaders Threaten Future of Special-Needs Scholarship

Feud” by Craig Kirkwood

March 8, 2017; Greenville Online

“I think they’re just incredibly jealous and disappointed that they haven’t gotten the program back and no one will talk to them.”

Although it sounds like a line from the movie Mean Girls, it was actually said by Tom Persons, board chair of the government-created nonprofit Exceptional SC, who is caught in a feud with Jeff Davis, cofounder of Palmetto Kids First. While their intentions are arguably good (it’s all for the kids!), the behavior of both Persons and Davis, which includes insults on social media, is a great example of what not to do when leadership from different organizations disagree. How did two community leaders end up here?

About four years ago, a South Carolina budget proviso enabled the state to provide tuition scholarships for students with exceptional needs to attend private schools through a program called the Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children (ECENC). According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), public schools work with parents to create an individualized education plan (IEP) in order to provide students with disabilities reasonable accommodations and a learning plan tailored to their needs. For students with exceptional needs, oftentimes the schools just do not have the budget to provide the level of accommodations that would allow these students to meet minimum requirements. (See NPQ’s previous coverage of a Supreme Court case in which a public school claimed it was unable to provide the accommodations necessary for an exceptional needs child and faced a lawsuit from the family.) Exceptional needs students may see better academic results by attending a private school that is specialized for their disabilities or has the funds to provide all of the necessary accommodations. Unfortunately, private school tuition is costly and most families simply cannot afford to place their exceptional needs children in such schools.

Thus, the ECENC program grants scholarships that would allow families to send their exceptional needs children to private schools where they can thrive. Rather than solely use state funds for this program, the proviso allowed nonprofit organizations to raise funds for scholarships. Five nonprofits formed in South Carolina to raise money for these scholarships, one of which was Jeff Davis’s Palmetto Kids First. After a couple of highly successful years, the organization began catching heat for what Greenville Online calls “aggressive fundraising techniques” and it was accused of offering parents of exceptional needs students scholarships in exchange for donations.

Although neither accusation has been proven, while investigating the claims, the South Carolina legislature decided to place control of the program into the hands of the Department of Revenue (DOR). The state department was asked to create a nonprofit organization that could raise funds and support the tuition scholarship program. The DOR established Exceptional SC and appointed Tom Persons as the chair of the board. From this point forward, problems arose, with Davis pointing out every flaw in the new scholarship system and Persons insulting Davis publicly.

Meanwhile, the South Carolina legislature is debating whether they should expand the program by $15 million in tax credits. While data indicate the ECENC is helping thousands of families, this public feud is a distraction unworthy of the mission.The feud between Davis and Persons illustrates a valuable lesson for nonprofit leaders.—Sheela Nimishakavi