Sumter School District fees to attorneys total $36K so far in board, Martin-Knox rift, records show

Duff awarded about $28K; Moore close to $8K


Sumter School District’s Board of Trustees racked up a little more than $36,000 in attorney fees in the last six months during its performance evaluation and ensuing legal action with outgoing Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox.

The Sumter Item obtained Monday, through a Freedom of Information Act request, money paid by the local district to school board attorney David Duff and also payments awarded to a plaintiff attorney who handled a suit against the board related to Martin-Knox’s dismissal in late February.

Duff, of Columbia-based Duff, Freeman and Lyon law firm, did not begin working with the local board until November when members selected him to initially facilitate the second-year performance evaluation of Martin-Knox as district superintendent for the 2020-21 year.

That evaluation was never completed in December after Martin-Knox released a statement following a Dec. 14 meeting that she would not seek a contract extension past this school year. The final day of her employment with the district is June 30.

It was not publicly revealed until the first board meeting in January, but there was a 5-4 split among the trustees against extending Martin-Knox.

After the thin majority attempted on Feb. 28 to vote at the conclusion of a board meeting to let her walk away with prorated pay — terms that Martin-Knox did not agree with — a legal battle ensued, and Duff has been busy in Sumter with the board ever since. According to billings verified by Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Miller, for the six-month timeframe of November through April, the district paid out $28,562.45 in legal services to Duff.

Jay Bender, legal counsel for the S.C. Press Association, initially said the Feb. 28 motion, vote and ensuing action were illegal under the Freedom of Information Act because they were not listed on the meeting agenda.

He said 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.

The Sumter Item found after that meeting that board members never even consulted with Duff on the motion, which also included allowing district Chief of Schools’ Brenda Hafner to serve as the lead administrator in Martin-Knox’s absence and placed an immediate moratorium on all administrator and district-level positions until a new superintendent was selected.

In response, a local clergy group filed a civil lawsuit against the board and was represented by Sumter attorney Dwight Moore.

On March 25, a circuit court judge ruled in favor of Sumter County Concerned Clergy, granting immediate relief and declaring the Feb. 28 board vote against public meeting laws and therefore invalid. The judge also ruled Moore, the plaintiff’s attorney, be awarded $7,785.94 in litigation and attorney fees. The district has paid that bill, according to public records obtained by The Sumter Item.

That takes total fees paid to Duff and Moore regarding Martin-Knox’s contractual issues since November to $36,248.39, according to district records.

This month, Duff continues to work with the trustees on a pending claim that Martin-Knox has brought against them and a pending suit on behalf of Sumter County Concerned Clergy. The status of the clergy case is not known at this time.