Judge initially sides with clergy in FOIA suit against Sumter School District


A judge has ruled in favor of an area clergy group for preliminary relief, ordering that a recent vote by the Sumter school board be declared invalid based on state Freedom of Information Act violations.

The Honorable Kirk Griffin issued a ruling Friday granting immediate relief to Sumter County Concerned Clergy in a civil lawsuit that it brought forth against Sumter School District's Board of Trustees for a Feb. 28 motion and vote of the full board that had multiple implications.

At that night's meeting, Trustee Daryl McGhaney introduced an impromptu motion to remove the district's superintendent before her contract expired, put another person in her place and put an immediate moratorium on all administrator and district-level positions. The motion and vote were not listed on the meeting agenda that night or added to the agenda during the meeting, a FOIA violation The Sumter Item first reported on, citing legal counsel from the South Carolina Press Association.

The motion passed in a 5-4 spilt vote but has been declared invalid now by Griffin.

Trustee Sherill Ray immediately seconded the vote, and the other three voting in favor included Frank Baker, Johnny Hilton and Matthew "Mac" McLeod.

Martin-Knox told the board on Dec. 14, the night of her annual performance evaluation, she was not seeking a contract extension past this school year. Two trustees told The Sumter Item a few days later that the five-trustee voting majority fueled her departure by creating an environment in which she did not want to work.

At a board meeting on Jan. 10, one of those trustees, Brian Alston, made a motion to extend Martin-Knox’s contract by three years. The motion failed by the same 5-4 split vote. The next day, Martin-Knox told The Sumter Item she would have accepted the extension had it passed, though it turned out that motion would have been illegal in the same way the Feb. 28 vote was that fueled The Sumter Item’s investigation and the clergy’s lawsuit because it was not on the agenda.

On Feb. 20, Martin-Knox was named superintendent in Raytown School District, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. Eight days later, the board voted 5-4 to pay out the remainder of her contract and have her leave her Sumter position immediately.

Reasons for the rift were never given, despite repeated questions and FOIA requests for documents from The Sumter Item.

The five-trustee voting majority has not complied with some of those requests from the newspaper for evidence of conversations between each other and the former superintendent, such as texts and voicemails. Conversations between elected and district officials about district matters are public record and should be supplied to the newspaper or any citizen who makes the official request.

District administration and the four trustees in the voting minority have furnished the public documents requested by the newspaper via the FOIA.

The clergy group are the plaintiffs in the case filed March 11, and Sumter School District and its Board of Trustees are the defendants.

Friday's action was just for an initial ruling, and the court case may continue. In the judge's ruling, the plaintiffs — represented by local attorney Dwight Moore — will also be awarded cost of litigation and attorney fees to date in the amount of $7,785.94.

Moore said late Friday that the case may have ongoing litigation.

The temporary injunction prohibits implementation of the actions involved in the Feb. 28 board vote. But, a question yet to be answered is whether Martin-Knox would agree to return to her position until her contract expires on June 30. She begins later this year as the superintendent of a district near Kansas City, Missouri.

Martin-Knox has her own pending claim against Sumter School District. The board recently voted to allow its attorney to pursue its resolution.

The school board's attorney, David Duff of Columbia, said he believes the trustees' action this past week to install Brenda Hafner as chief administrative officer was validly taken under FOIA. The second part of the illegal Feb. 28 motion was to put Hafner in Martin-Knox's place until the district's next superintendent is hired, a search for whom is being conducted now.

Duff added he is not sure how the judge's ruling will impact who is in that post now.

The final part of the Feb. 28 motion and vote regarding a freeze on hiring and dismissals on all administrator and district-level positions has yet to be completely clarified.

Duff said he believes the moratorium can be lifted on a case-by-case basis by the board. He said it has not been clear to him whether the freeze applied more directly on administration or a limitation on the board itself.

Earlier this week, a district spokeswoman still could not get clarification on who the moratorium applied to after questions from The Sumter Item.

Two board members — McGhaney and McLeod — have spouses who work in district administration, as the special education curriculum coordinator and executive director of instruction, respectively. A third trustee — Sherril Ray — has a spouse who is a teacher in the district.

One thing that is clear since Feb. 28 is the board did not seek advise from Duff on the controversial motion and vote ahead of time.

Moore asserted two FOIA violations by the district related to the Feb. 28 meeting, and Griffin has them both listed in his Friday ruling. However, one alleged violation was a partial error on The Item's Daily Planner page from the Feb. 26-28 weekend edition. Under "Public Agenda," it stated the meeting site was the district office at 1345 Wilson Hall Road. On its meeting agenda for that night, the district correctly stated the meeting would be held at Manchester Elementary School in Pinewood. While the Daily Planner listing was incorrect, the print-only error was listed on page A12 the same day The Item ran an article about the upcoming meeting, with the correct venue, on page A1 and online.

The agenda violation does not pertain to that listing.

Duff said the school board will abide by the ruling but that he has yet to meet with the trustees. He will meet with them at Monday's board meeting.

"I think based on the facts and the law under FOIA," Duff said, "the judge's ruling was sound."


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