In a change to its meeting agenda, Sumter School District’s Board of Trustees will receive legal advice Monday on a pending claim on behalf of former superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox.
A district representative placed an amended agenda online on Saturday morning. The legal counsel will be given and discussed during executive session behind closed doors Monday night, and the school board attorney spoke briefly to The Sumter Item on Saturday.
The specific statement added to the agenda under executive session states “and receipt of legal advice concerning a pending claim on behalf of Dr. Martin-Knox.”
Dave Duff, of Columbia-based Duff, Freeman and Lyon Attorneys at Law, has served as the school board’s attorney since the evaluation process of the former superintendent began in late November.
He told The Item the pending claim on behalf of Martin-Knox came in late Friday and therefore was not on the original agenda posted Friday morning but instead placed on an amended agenda Saturday morning. Open meeting laws require agenda for public meetings to be announced to the public and media 24 hours in advance.
Duff would not comment further but said he has not spoken to the trustees on the matter yet.
Previous meeting agendas since January have said during executive session the full board would receive “legal advice related to a 'potential claim’ or other matters covered by the attorney-client relationship” and even more language at times.
Jay Bender, legal counsel for the South Carolina Press Association, said the previous meeting statements were vague, as if the board was hiding information, but Saturday’s amended statement is specific.
“When you put the whole alphabet out there, you don’t know whether they are talking about A, B or Z,” he said. “The agenda for Monday is specific and informative.”
Duff, the board attorney, would not provide additional details on the nature of the pending claim.
“You can read it for what it says,” he said. “I think I described the nature of the claim. We have gotten real specific, just like you asked. You can determine the word ‘pending’ any way you want.”
Bender said it reads like a real claim on behalf of Martin-Knox.
Near the end of the board’s most recent regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 28, Trustee Daryl McGhaney raised a surprise motion to pay Martin-Knox the remaining balance of her contract through June 30 and walk away from her role, effective immediately. By all apparent reasoning, McGhaney's motion was not discussed in the executive session that night with Duff. It was not on the agenda nor discussed at all in open session.
Martin-Knox said at the time that she did not agree to those terms.
Trustees voting in favor of the motion included McGhaney, Frank Baker, Johnny Hilton, Matthew "Mac" McLeod and Sherril Ray. Those against included board Chairwoman Barbara Jackson, Brian Alston, Shawn Ragin and Gloria Lee.
Bender said the motion, vote and ensuing action were illegal under the Freedom of Information Act because they were not listed on the meeting agenda. The board and district have moved ahead with making Brenda Hafner lead administrator while the search for the district's next superintendent continues. Hafner is chief of schools, like an assistant superintendent.
Bender told The Sumter Item after the Feb. 28 vote the board effectively terminated Martin-Knox's contract even though "termination" was not used in the motion.
According to a copy of Martin-Knox’s contract obtained by The Item, termination by the board requires six trustees’ votes. They were one vote shy.
There has since been no public statement or explanation as to why Martin-Knox was told to leave early or asked to not stay at all, despite repeated questions and official Freedom of Information Act requests from The Sumter Item. Martin-Knox and those voting in the minority have complied with those requests, but no one in the voting majority has complied.
Monday’s meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the gym at Ebenezer Middle School, 3440 Ebenezer Road, near the Dalzell area.
For those not physically attending Monday, the district continues to broadcast meetings live on YouTube.
Anyone wanting to attend the meeting virtually can do so via YouTube Sumter School District Board Meeting and the district's Facebook page, @SumterSCSchools.
The school board meeting marks the first opportunity for public participation since the trustees' impromptu, split vote informed Martin-Knox to walk away from her job four months early. The trustees will also discuss the district's mask mandate and potentially vote on the matter, according to the agenda.
It will also be the last time for the general public to directly address the full board on district-wide rezoning of school attendance lines before the trustees vote on the matter at the end of the month.
Continuing reading for details of what will be discussed during the meeting: https://www.theitem.com/stories/monday-is-final-sumter-school-board-meeting-before-rezoning-vote-first-chance-for-public,379612.
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