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Sumter school board to discuss removing its committees

If groups remain, members of public might not serve on them

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 10/9/19

It's expected at its next meeting Monday night that Sumter School District's Board of Trustees will talk about doing away with its advisory committees or at least removing the public from serving on those committees.

That was the final …

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Sumter school board to discuss removing its committees

If groups remain, members of public might not serve on them

Posted

It's expected at its next meeting Monday night that Sumter School District's Board of Trustees will talk about doing away with its advisory committees or at least removing the public from serving on those committees.

That was the final recommendation from Area 3 Trustee and Policy Committee member Matthew "Mac" McLeod, and it was supported by fellow committee members Daryl McGhaney and Brian Alston at their Monday meeting at the district office.

After discussions on the issues at hand with McLeod and a state School Boards Association representative on Tuesday, the matter appears to boil down to legal concerns with community members not being "officials of the district," whereas trustees are elected as officials by the public. Also, McLeod said the district is one of the few in the state to have committees and even fewer with public involvement on committees. However, McLeod did say he's not opposed to the board getting assistance from the public when it needs it.

The board has three advisory committees - Finance, Facilities and Policy.

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 the only committee that has voting members of the public serving on it. The committee does provide recommendations to the board, but the trustees ultimately have the final vote on all matters.

"Ultimately, items come back to the board to handle," McLeod said. "The board was elected to handle the business of the district; so, rather than going through two or three channels, handle it. Hold each other accountable and handle the business."

Debbie Elmore, the director of governmental relations and communications with the state School Boards Association, said the association doesn't have an official recommendation that it gives to school boards concerning committees. She did say some boards have committees, but they are generally composed of board members only.

"The reason why committee members are board members is because it's an entity of the board," Elmore said. "The board members are elected, they are part of the district, they represent the voice of the people in the district, and they are part of that district entity, and they're bonded. They are officials of the district, basically."

When community members become part of a committee, they are not employed by the district or elected. Then, as part of a committee, they could be looking at information about issues, some of which may or may not be open to public disclosure, such as contracts, Elmore said.

"They are not bound by any ethics laws; they are not insured or bonded by the district," she said. "If they go out and share this information, that could be a potential legal issue."

"Board members are bonded and insured and held accountable to the ethics laws," Elmore added. "They have to file conflicts of interest. Everything is transparent, and they have to show what money they get. Community members are private citizens, and they're not under any of that."

Background

Sumter's revamped school board, which had a five-member changeover in the November 2018 election, has been the subject of much public scrutiny in the last year for failing to comply with its own "fiscal caution" recovery plan from May 2018 by voting to reopen Mayewood Middle School.

That vote in February prompted state Superintendent Molly Spearman to declare a "fiscal emergency" in the district. Subsequently, the board voted to appeal Spearman's decision to the state Board of Education, accumulating about $26,000 in attorney fees.

In April, the state board - in a 10-0 unanimous vote - affirmed Spearman's fiscal emergency declaration in the district.

In the process, Spearman, leaders from Shaw Air Force Base and Gov. Henry McMaster publicly condemned the local school board for its actions.

The first difficulties in the district became apparent in December 2016 when the fiscal 2016 audit report was released and revealed the district overspent its budget that year by $6.2 million and had an ending general fund balance on June 30, 2016, of $106,449 - a critically low level, according to then-auditor Robin Poston.

In the last two-plus years, with a chief financial officer now in place, the district has built its fund balance to a projected $12.5 million as of the end of fiscal 2019.

Back to this week

Elmore said Tuesday the state association doesn't give opinions on school boards' actions but instead is membership driven and works for the boards.

When asked Monday about the district's $130 million budget and the need for financial experts from the community serving on the Finance Committee, McLeod said it will be necessary at times.

"When we look at finance projects, we absolutely need the assistance of those people," McLeod said. "But that is not a monthly thing that we need that."

McLeod said when the need for committees arises, the board could create ad-hoc committees and solicit public input on them.

"I am not saying I don't want the public involved in the school district business," he said. "Not at all. If anything, I think that would allow more involvement with the public because we wouldn't have to rely on just the two or three people who are on those committees."