Sumter school board still debating committee system

Trustees may seek legal counsel on whether the groups should be able to hold executive sessions

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 8/15/19

The subject of board committees and members of the public serving on them continues to draw special attention from Sumter School District's Board of Trustees.

At Monday night's meeting, trustees wrangled again on whether its committees should be …

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Sumter school board still debating committee system

Trustees may seek legal counsel on whether the groups should be able to hold executive sessions

Posted

The subject of board committees and members of the public serving on them continues to draw special attention from Sumter School District’s Board of Trustees.

At Monday night’s meeting, some trustees wrangled again on whether its committees should be allowed to go into executive session behind closed doors and also discussed a new potential conflict of interest policy for committee members and board members.

Debate on the board’s committees has existed since the first meeting of the revamped school board nine months ago in November. The nine-member board had a five-member changeover with the November mid-term election.

It’s been mentioned several times by trustees that the board’s Finance Committee is basically at the center of the discussion because it’s currently the only committee that has voting members of the public serving on it. The committee serves in an advisory role to the board.

On the subject of executive sessions for committees, Policy Committee Chairman the Rev. Daryl McGhaney reported to the full board that legal counsel recently advised board administrative manager and district staff member Amy Hansen for the board not to disrupt committees from going into executive session because it’s a common practice throughout the state.

“If we try to stop that, we might find ourselves in some sort of legal waters,” McGhaney said. “And we can have some further conversation later on if we still want to pursue that. But what I am saying, as far as the chairman, we need to be careful with that.”

Board member Frank Baker, who has said previously he’s against committees going into executive session, raised concerns with legal counsel’s advice on the matter.

He said minutes are not taken in the Finance Committee’s executive sessions, and he’s concerned whether and when relevant issues from those sessions are being shared by trustees on the committee to the full board.

“It [the executive session] is not recorded in the minutes, so when does the board get it?” Baker said. “So, what you are doing as a committee is you’re leaving the board holding the bag because if it’s a legal situation, it’s going to come back on the school board and not the committee.”

He also said he thinks Finance Committee agendas often don’t accurately state the reason for entering into executive session, and that’s required by law.

Fellow trustee and Finance Committee Chairman Johnny Hilton countered Baker and said the committee system is common for most school boards, and they meet and discuss items in executive session, and they sometimes bring recommendations to the full board.

“If a committee can’t meet in executive session, then it can’t function,” Hilton said. “You can’t have a facilities committee meeting and discuss plans for future facilities out here in public in front of everybody. You just can’t do that, and you know that, Dr. Baker.”

Baker responded to Hilton: “No sir, I don’t know that.”

For the record, in the spring of 2017, Baker was the district’s superintendent and regularly met with the advisory Finance Committee in executive session, and closing low-enrollment schools was a regular topic of discussion.

Baker mutually agreed with the board in July 2017 to retire as superintendent after a financial crisis and $6.2 million in overspending was revealed in December 2016 in the district’s official audit report. Last year, he ran for and won an at-large seat on the board.

Hilton then said Monday he didn’t understand why the board now wants to deviate from the committee system.

“The committee system is part and parcel of how school districts operate,” Hilton said. “I don’t know of any problems that have occurred, other than some people got personally upset about things. But I don’t know of any problems that occurred for the district or the school board as a result of committees having an executive session.”

Trustees Sherril Ray and Brian Alston added comments about transparency and trust and limiting the executive sessions.

Near the close of the report, McGhaney said the board is considering asking legal counsel if it can come to a future board meeting and discuss the matter, along with others, with the full board.

On the subject of a new conflict of interest form for committee members and board members to sign annually, Hilton said he would like to see a version of the form before voting on it. Chairman Ralph Canty advised McGhaney that he can probably obtain an appropriate form to use from the state Department of Education.

Later in the meeting, the board voted unanimously to postpone second reading on the two board committee policies until a later date.

Initially, when the revamped board assumed leadership last year, there was discussion on removing the public from serving on any board committees. But in April, the board gave first reading approval to allow the public to serve on committees — on the condition they individually receive at least a majority vote from the nine-member board to serve.

Previously, full board approval was not necessary for a member of the public to serve on a committee.