7-member changeover coming to Sumter school board; newcomers win all 4 district trustee runoffs Tuesday


The nine-member Sumter School District Board of Trustees will feature a seven-member changeover in January after four new faces to the scene won runoff elections Tuesday throughout Sumter County.

Daniel Palumbo, Brittany English, Tarah Cousar Johnson and Jeff Zell - all newcomers to politics - won their respective school board races after runoffs were required when no candidate in those elections received more than 50% of the total vote in the Nov. 8 midterm election.

Palumbo and English defeated incumbents Brian Alston and Frank Baker in the runoffs, respectively. A total of eight incumbents on the often-controversial board ran for re-election in this cycle, and six lost to challengers. Only Shawn Ragin (District 5) and Matthew "Mac" McLeod (District 6) won their races and will be carryovers on the new board.

The new District 9 had no incumbent living within its boundaries after redistricting to reflect Census 2020 results and the local legislative delegation's move to create nine single-member districts from seven previously. Bonnie Disney won that seat on Nov. 8 and will be the new trustee come January when new board members are installed.

Disney is not a newcomer to the board, however. After a financial crisis related to overspending the district's budget first became apparent in December 2016 with the independent auditor's official audit report, the Sumter County Legislative Delegation added two at-large seats to the board. Because the move was in 2017, a non-election year, the delegation appointed the initial two at-large members, and Disney - a life-long educator and former member of the state Board of Education - was one of them. In November 2018, the two seats went up for the public's vote for the first time, and Disney finished in a close third place in a race where the two top vote-getters (Baker and Ragin) won the seats.

The board's struggles have dated back to 2011 when it was created and when the two former school districts in Sumter County were consolidated into one countywide district.

The seven-member consolidated board's first superintendent selection in a 5-2 split vote was Randy Bynum from Atlanta Public Schools, which had just experienced a well-publicized cheating scandal. Bynum would ultimately serve two tumultuous years in Sumter before resigning and walking away.

In the summer of 2013, the board named Baker - the former longtime superintendent in Sumter School District 2 - its interim superintendent. A few months later in a surprise motion and 4-3 split vote, the board named Baker its full-time superintendent.

For more than a decade since consolidation, the full board has internally struggled with battles and squabbles between the two former school districts (District 2 and Sumter School District 17).

The district's current superintendent, William Wright Jr., is its fifth leader in 11 years when including an interim superintendent - Debbie Hamm - who served two years in the role.

Board actions in the last four years that have come under scrutiny include violating the district's financial recovery plan by voting to reopen a school that was closed and consolidated into a nearby school by the previous board in April 2018. The state superintendent placed the district on "fiscal emergency" for the action. Additionally, the board only received two mills of support from Sumter County Council in four years while being turned down for more than 10 additional mills.


Eligible registered voter turnout for Sumter County's five total runoff elections was 10.62%, according to unofficial results from the Sumter County Voter Registration and Elections Office. A total of 3,317 ballots were cast to include early voting and absentee voting last week of the 31,236 eligible voters in the county. All the precincts - 27 total - in those eligible voting areas were open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Turnout for the runoff was expected to be low because it was two days before Thanksgiving, but state law requires runoffs to always be two weeks after the general election. This year's election fell on Nov. 8, necessitating the holiday-week runoff.

With redistricting, all nine school board districts - alternatively called areas - have very similar population totals. Total turnout was highest in District 8 with 1,207 votes cast.

The new District 4, to include the Mayesville and Shiloh communities in the eastern portion of the county, featured the second-highest voter turnout with 986 ballots cast.

The new District 1 (538 ballots cast) and District 2 (518 votes) rounded out runoff totals for the four school board races.

Only seven counties in South Carolina featured runoff elections Tuesday because the majority of elections do not require a candidate to receive a majority of the vote (more than 50%) to win, according to Chris Whitmire of the state Election Commission.

He added that immediate comparisons of county voter turnout percentages were not available.

In the lone runoff for Sumter City Council, Anthony Gibson won the Ward 1 seat with 64.52%, or 120 votes. Joe Brown received 35.48%, or 66 votes.

All votes in Sumter's five runoff elections will be certified this morning at the Sumter County Courthouse, according to the Sumter County Voter Registration and Elections Office, to include any provisional and fail-safe ballots to be counted in the process.