Behind the doors of Bridgewater Academy

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) A WMBF News investigation into salaries and expenses at public schools in Horry County has finally led to a charter school opening-up its books.

Bridgewater Academy, which gets more than $1 million of residents' tax dollars through Horry County Schools, failed to turn-over documents to WMBF News for months. On March 8, WMBF News sent a letter to Bridgewater's acting principal, Steve Wilson, requesting the documents. State law requires publicly-funded organizations to reply within 15 business days. But no one from the school responded until we let them know in late April that they were violating the law.

It led to the following e-mail exchange from board member Jennifer Walters:

"How should she respond?" she wanted to know in an email to christinashealy@gmail.com. "Should we give him salary ranges or exact info?"

The response from ChristinaShealy@gmail.com read: "Give him exact info. We have nothing to hide, do we?"

Shealy tells WMBF News she has not been associated with Bridgewater Academy since May. She used to serve on the board.

15 days after the email exchange, all that WMBF News got from Walters via e-mail was a one-page sheet of salary ranges. It contained no names, did not indicate how many people were paid at what level, and basically told us nothing. Preview that document at the link below.

WMBF News informed the board they were not complying with South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act and again requested specific dollar amounts.

The board promised us they were working on it, but again after not getting the documents for weeks, we decided to show-up at one of their board meetings the night of July 20.

We asked Ms. Walters, who serves as the secretary on the board, if we could speak outside of their meeting during a break.

We pointed out that we were trying to find out how much Bridgewater spends on administrator and teacher salaries.

"And we've been slow in getting that to you because we've never been asked that question before. And we actually had to create those documents," Walters replied.

Walters mentioned that they have a small staff, which made the situation more difficult. But we pointed out that another charter school in Myrtle Beach, the Palmetto Academy of Learning and Success, had complied with the law and turned-over the information to us. They also have a small staff.

"I can't speak for them," Walters told us. "And I don't know how their staffing or their organization is. We did go through a little upheaval this year with the administrator [Craig Crawford] leaving and then temporarily filling it. And that was a challenge that maybe they didn't have to undergo."

The upheaval was still apparent at the board meeting WMBF News attended last month with teachers showing-up saying they still didn't have a contract and weren't sure where classes would be held this year.

Also in attendance was one of the charter school's founders, Keith Merrill.

There's been a huge split between his family and the board. Merrill says the school still has some of his property, too, after moving out of the building he owned.

"They packed it up in Pods," Merrill told WMBF News outside the board meeting. "Most of it was the refrigerator that we had left in the school, basically for them…And basically, if they would've bought the building I could've cared less. Now it became the principal of the thing."

Merrill spoke-out during the public comment section of the board meeting, as he says he's done about three times. But he got no answers from board members about where his property might be. They later told WMBF News they'd been advised by their attorney not to say anything about it.

We asked Walters outside the meeting where the friction between school leaders and the Merrill family is coming from.

"I think just personnel changes," she said. "Change is tough, you know. Changing of the guard is tough."

Mr. Merrill says his daughter was let go as Bridgewater Academy's kindergarten teacher because she was not given a chance to get accredited, as the charter school now requires. However, board members disputed that later, telling WMBF News they gave her many opportunities.

Meanwhile, Walters promised again to get us the documents.

This time, she and the board came through. That document can be viewed through the link below.

The documents Bridgewater handed-over to WMBF News show the school spent more than $1 million last year. They have 150 students, according to Walters.

Salaries make-up the biggest chunk of their expenses.

Interim principal Steve Wilson is paid $62,500 per year.

Documents show that, generally, teachers at Bridgewater make between the mid $30,000s to the mid $40,000s.

Walters says those teachers do have a contract now. They'll teach classes at Christ United Methodist Church by "Medieval Times" again this year until a new school building is ready nearby.

The point throughout the WMBF News investigation has been for community members to know how schools in Horry County are spending tax payer money.

The law in South Carolina is clear. You have a right to know. All legal information can be found under the Freedom of Information Act guide: http://www.scpress.org/Documents/2011FOI.pdf

Jay Bender, an attorney in Columbia who's an expert on First Amendment cases, tells WMBF News that if Bridgewater's board members had never turned over the documents they could've been charged with a misdemeanor.

But, he says, unlike other criminal violations you can actually tell courts in South Carolina that you were unaware of the law and be found "not guilty."

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