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Concerns arise over Sumter School Board trustee inviting public schools to private school community event

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 11/9/19

A Sumter school board member invited official public school student performance groups to be featured at a festival at his private school, for which he is headmaster, and some are saying it's a conflict of interest.

Sumter School District's Board …

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Concerns arise over Sumter School Board trustee inviting public schools to private school community event

Posted

A Sumter school board member invited official public school student performance groups to be featured at a festival at his private school, for which he is headmaster, and some are saying it's a conflict of interest.

Sumter School District's Board of Trustees at-large member Shawn Ragin is headmaster of Ragin Preparatory Christian Academy, and the school, at 68 Market St., will present its inaugural Ujima Community Festival on Saturday, Nov. 9, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Ragin is scheduled to open the festival with a brief message, and musical groups from five public schools in Sumter are on tap to perform and be a part of the festival's entertainment. Those schools include Furman Middle School, Lemira Elementary School and the district's three high schools - Sumter, Crestwood and Lakewood.

As of Friday night, the process for how Ragin contacted and invited the schools was still not known.

Board Chairman the Rev. Ralph Canty said Ragin did not go through him or the full board for permission to invite the schools. He didn't go through Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox either, according to district spokeswoman Shelly Galloway.

Canty did say the board will plan to meet soon to remedy the matter from occurring again.

After a Wednesday story in The Sumter Item previewed the festival and noted that the private school was charging a $2 admission fee, school officials decided later that day to make the event free.

Even without the admission charge, some community members remain concerned that Ragin's actions represent a conflict of interest in his capacity as a board member for a public school district.

Sumter's former long-time state Sen. Phil Leventis said he wants to know who approved the performing groups' participation because the board says it was unaware.

"It's an absolute conflict of interest," Leventis said. "I don't know of anyone who would believe that it would be reasonable for the public school system to provide support for private schools. Just on its face, it doesn't sound right that whatever the expenses are to provide those services are going to a private, for-profit school. That's a real concern."

He said the board needs to find out who approved it because it seems "well-coordinated" with so many schools represented.

Galloway, the district's executive director of communication and community engagement, said Friday that it is common for schools to be invited to perform at festivals and other events and that only principal approval is required, not district administration.

Canty, the board chairman, said he didn't know anything about the festival until Wednesday when he read about it in The Sumter Item but said it's concerning.

"We are going to have to take this matter under advisement and, in all probability, develop a policy related to it in the next week or two," Canty said. "But, clearly, it smacks as conflict of interest."

Efforts to contact Ragin for comment on Friday were unsuccessful.