Incumbents lose seats after Sumter school board runoffs


Four runoff races were held for Sumter school board seats. Two featured incumbents, both of whom lost.

A runoff is necessary when there are more than two candidates on the ballot but no one receives a majority of the votes (50% plus one vote). This is the first election the state Legislature required a Sumter school board candidate to earn a majority of votes, rather than a plurality where simply the candidate with the most votes wins, even if it is under 50%.

Votes will be made official today during a county election commission meeting, according to the Sumter County Voter Registration and Elections Office.

New board members will be sworn in in January.


Incumbent Brian Alston was defeated by challenger Daniel Palumbo, who took 57.7% of the votes, or 311 votes. Alston received 42.3%, or 228 votes.

In the midterm election on Nov. 8, Palumbo was the second-highest vote-getter with 35.43%, or 722 votes, following Alston, who earned the most with 37.49%, or 764 votes. They both beat Sharon Tiegue, who came in third and therefore did not make the runoff.

Palumbo has been a Sumter resident since 2013. He is retired from the U.S. Air Force and owns a Kona Ice franchise that serves Sumter, Columbia/Lexington and Clarendon counties. He has two children attending schools in the district.

"It was a great hard fight, but now it's time to start to work and getting our children a better education," he said. "I'm excited, and I'm ready to get to work."

Alston, a Rembert native, has served on the school board since the November 2018 election. His term will end in December.

"From the moment that I took the oath of office, I have ensured that my focus has been on putting our students and our staff first, and that will continue through the end of my term. I'm not finished with serving our community, our students or our staff," Alston said. "My prayer is that this new board governs without personal interest, the cultural wars or the partisan politics and puts the focus on the children."

Alston said leadership isn't about being in the position. It's about the work done in that position, and he hopes that's the case with the work he's done on the school board since 2018. He doesn't plan to end his service just because he lost the seat.

"This will not be the end of Brian Alston in Sumter School District or Sumter County," he said. "There's so much more work to do, and I'm adamant about ensuring work gets done."

In December of last year when it became apparent that five trustees on the nine-member board did not want former Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox to remain in her position, Alston told The Item that personal agendas and biases had dominated the board's activity since 2018. Alston was an outspoken supporter of Martin-Knox, who left the district for another superintendent post in June. 


Brittany English is poised to be the new District 2 trustee, representing the northern portions of the county.

English earned 71.04% of the vote, or 368 votes, in the runoff. Incumbent board member Frank Baker took 28.96%, or 150 votes.

In the midterm election on Nov. 8, English and Baker both received more votes than John Wrenn Jr.

English, a kinship care coordinator with the state Department of Social Services based in Columbia, said Wednesday that she was humbled by the trust and faith shown by her supporters.

"Thanks to my campaign manager, family and volunteers for countless hours of work that was shared to achieve this great accomplishment," she said. "As I embark on this journey, I will always keep God first. Lastly, I would like to thank Frank Baker and John Wrenn for rendering your time and life to public service along with running a clean race."

Baker congratulated English on her win and wishes the restructured board with seven new members success down the road.

"I am very pleased with the outcome of the election and very happy for Brittany," he said. "She will bring a young, new perspective to the board, and I think that is very good. So, I am looking forward to her and her successes on the school board and the full board's success going forward."

Baker added that he has no intention of running again for the board in the future after a combined 48 years of service in Sumter's public schools. He said he is content to see new board members bring new perspectives to the board and their successes in those efforts.

Baker served a four-year term as an at-large board member since 2018 before the school board moved to nine single-member districts for this election and moving forward.

Baker was the district's superintendent from 2013-17. He was also the longtime superintendent of the former Sumter School District 2 before consolidation in 2011. His term on the board will conclude in December.


Tarah Cousar Johnson is set to be the new District 4 trustee.

She earned 60.85% of the new district's vote, or 600 votes in the runoff. Challenger Monica Squires took 39.15%, or 387 votes.

"I am overwhelmed and elated," Johnson told The Sumter Item on Tuesday night. "I am happy that Area 4 residents saw it fit to vote the best candidate, the most-equipped candidate and the most experienced candidate into this seat. They did it because they know that I care about the children, they know that I care about the community, and they know I will do what is right for all three."

Squires said even though she was disappointed in the results, she wishes Johnson and the board the best in the future.

"I wish her and the school district well, and I know that God just has other plans for me," she said. "I will continue to support our town and community, the students and our teachers."

Incumbent Daryl McGhaney finished third in the Nov. 8 election and will no longer be a board member after December. He has served on the school board since the start of district consolidation in 2011.


Jeff Zell is set to be the new District 8 trustee.

He earned 59.57% of the new district's vote, or 719 votes, in the runoff. Phil Leventis took 40.43%, or 488 votes.

Zell said he was surprised to garner that much of the vote in the runoff and that he thought the race against Leventis would be closer.

"Phil Leventis is a very popular name in Sumter with a long history," Zell told The Sumter Item on Tuesday night. "People want somebody new and to move Sumter into the future, and that is what I hope to help with."

A former state senator representing Sumter for 32 years, Leventis was looking to re-enter the political arena to help the local school district.

He said he was grateful for the opportunity to have spoken to so many people about the needs of local teachers, school staff, students, parents and the community during the campaign.

"First, I congratulate all of tonight's winners and thank the voters in District 8," Leventis said. "While I am personally disappointed in the election results, more importantly, we are all hopeful for the future of the Sumter school board and the Sumter School District, as their success has an enormous impact on the future of our Sumter community."

Incumbent Sherril Ray finished third in the Nov. 8 election and will no longer be a board member after December. She served a four-year term on the board.