Files show Superintendent Martin-Knox told Sumter school board trustee’s wife her contract would end days before illegal motion

S.C. media attorney says moratorium portion of McGhaney’s motion was an ethics violation


A review of personnel files shows less than one week before a Sumter school board member made an impromptu motion to remove the superintendent, his wife was notified her district contract would not be renewed.

The timeline is documented in public records obtained by The Sumter Item through the Freedom of Information Act, a law that ensures public business and officials operate openly in a way that's accessible to the public. After reviewing the personnel file of Vivian McGhaney, the special education curriculum coordinator for Sumter School District, The Sumter Item spoke to her husband, Daryl McGhaney, who represents Area 5 on the school board and serves as its clerk, about the timeline of events leading up to his controversial motion and vote, which was supported by four other board members but has since been invalidated by a judge.


A letter from Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox to Vivian McGhaney dated Feb. 24 details a meeting between them from two days earlier where Martin-Knox informed Vivian McGhaney that her year-to-year Letter of Agreement contract as a working retiree would not be renewed after June 30.

The superintendent's letter notes Vivian McGhaney submitted a letter of intent on Jan. 8 indicating she did not plan to return to the district for next school year (2022-23). Then, on Feb. 4, she changed her letter to reflect that she wished to return, according to the superintendent's letter obtained by The Sumter Item.

However, between the time Vivian McGhaney said she did not wish to return and then changed her mind, Martin-Knox had eliminated Vivian McGhaney's position and reallocated the funding.

All those events were discussed in the Feb. 22 meeting, according to the letter. Documents show Vivian McGhaney - as a working retiree - has an at-will employment contract. At the end of the letter, Martin-Knox confirmed that Vivian McGhaney's last day of employment in the position will be June 30.

Her current salary as the district's special education curriculum coordinator was not included in her personnel file obtained by The Sumter Item through a FOIA request. The most recent year that was included was 2018, when her salary in the role was $81,346, according to the records.

Six days following the meeting was the Feb. 28 trustees' work session where Daryl McGhaney made the motion to effectively tell Martin-Knox to walk away from her post immediately with the rest of her pay, four months before her contract was supposed to also end June 30. Though Martin-Knox had already asked for her own contract to not extend for a new year, she was against leaving early and said she was not in agreement with the terms of the motion.

In addition to what a media attorney said was effectively a vote to fire Martin-Knox, going against her contract that requires termination to be by a supermajority of six board members, Daryl McGhaney's motion also called for a "moratorium" - or freeze - on about 250 top district positions until a new superintendent is selected. The spring months are a critical point in the school year for hiring administrators in any school district.

The freeze included his wife's post, and all the potentially affected positions were also obtained by The Item through a separate FOIA request.

McGhaney's motion passed that night with a 5-4 split vote.

A state circuit court judge ruled three weeks later in a civil lawsuit that the vote by the school board be declared invalid because it was not on the agenda and prohibited implementation of the actions involved in the vote.

The illegality of the motion, vote and ensuing action under FOIA's open meetings rule was first reported by The Sumter Item with analysis by Jay Bender, legal counsel for the S.C. Press Association.


When contacted Thursday by The Item about the timeline of events, Daryl McGhaney said he could not talk about a timeline and had no knowledge of a meeting between the superintendent and his wife. He referred any questioning to his wife.

On Friday, Vivian McGhaney, who is also a longtime elected member of Sumter County Council, also said she has not informed her husband of all the details. She said her husband is not the type of person to seek retaliation.

Daryl McGhaney initially placed the responsibility for the Feb. 28 motion on all five board members who voted in favor, even though he initiated the motion. Only one person can make a motion, which then can be voted in favor of or against by other board members.

Those other trustees included Sherril Ray, who immediately seconded the motion that night, Vice Chairman Frank Baker, Johnny Hilton and Matthew "Mac" McLeod.

From the lengthy discussion among the nine trustees following Daryl McGhaney's motion, it is clear the topics were discussed neither in executive session behind closed doors nor in open session in front of the public. The topics and potential for action were not on the agenda.

Also, it has become clear based on reporting by The Item since then that Daryl McGhaney did not seek legal counsel on his motion ahead of time. Board attorney David Duff of Columbia left the Feb. 28 meeting just before the return to open session and has said various times since then that he was not aware of the motion and did even understand the "moratorium" element involved in it.

Daryl McGhaney told The Item on Thursday he did not talk to anyone about the motion.


The question of what happened to cause the rift between Martin-Knox and the board majority has been burning since the start of the year.

Board Chairwoman Barbara Jackson read a statement from Martin-Knox at a December 2021 board meeting that she was not seeking a contract extension.

By law, a public body does not have to reveal why it makes certain decisions on personnel matters. The board is not obligated to tell the newspaper or public and never has to date. But there seemed to be only minimal "red flags," at best, from board meetings since her first evaluation in October 2020 when she received the top score possible.

In January, the board voted down a motion from fellow trustee Brian Alston to extend her contract. The vote was the same 5-4 split. Later Martin-Knox told The Sumter Item she would have accepted the offer to continue in her role had it passed.

A series of FOIA requests from The Item, including emails, text messages and phone calls, did not reveal a clear reason, possibly because the five members of the voting majority were noncompliant to the newspaper's requests. The board attorney even threatened legal action over it, calling the request for texts and voicemails "absurd." Each of the four board members in the voting minority complied with the requests.

Two of those board members, Alston and Shawn Ragin, have told The Item the five-member board majority created an environment of disrespect, meddling and micromanagement that led to her seeking another job.


When asked why he made the motion that night, Daryl McGhaney said the motion clearly stated his intentions.

That motion, which he read from a sheet of paper, said "to allow the superintendent to use all of leave time until it is exhausted and the focus on her new district. and then pay the remaining balance of her contract in full, and in her absence allow Dr. Brenda Hefner (sic) to serve as the lead administrator and place a moratorium on all administrator and district level positions until a new superintendent is selected effective immediately."

He added his motion was not intended to terminate Martin-Knox, but since news had been released on Feb. 20 that she was named the new superintendent in a Missouri school district - effective July 1 - it was to allow her to leave now with prorated pay and focus on her new job.

Martin-Knox has not moved out of Sumter to date and continued attending speaking engagements at churches and local community groups while the matter was sorted.

But from the Feb. 28 meeting video, a gesture of support was clearly not reflected in his tone that night. Also, amid confusion from other board members regarding the motion's legality and the possibility to at least delay the vote, Daryl McGhaney said he was against tabling the motion.


When asked why not just allow Martin-Knox to finish her contract through June 30, Daryl McGhaney told the newspaper Thursday he could not talk about the superintendent.

By this time in the conversation, he had already asserted the newspaper was writing an article to place a "personal attack" on him and that he wanted no part of that.

"I refuse to talk about Martin-Knox," McGhaney said. "I am not talking about her. You are still trying to talk about her, and I am not talking about her. I have to go. You will have to call them and talk to them. I am one board member. You can't tell me what I need to do. I am not talking about the superintendent. I like the superintendent. She is a good person, and I'm not talking about her."

Then, when asked another question about his motion, he hung up.


Bender, the attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said he thinks Daryl McGhaney made an ethics violation not with the move to dismiss the superintendent but with the moratorium portion of his motion because it directly benefited a family member.

"It don't think it makes any difference whether he knew anything about the prior meeting with his wife; he was making a motion that directly benefited a member of his family," Bender said. "He should not have participated in that discussion at all. He knew she was employed by the district, and he needed to recuse himself from any discussion of that.

"That motion and his participation in the discussion and vote would have been illegal under the Ethics Act. It doesn't make any difference that he didn't know the superintendent had told his wife that she would not be employed. He knew she was employed, and if he makes a motion to continue the employment of all administrators - including his wife - then he is violating the law."