Sumter trustees accept association's search proposal; meeting marked by lack of discussion again


Sumter's school board is moving forward with a main ally to conduct its next superintendent search and hopes to announce a new district leader by early May.

That was new information gleaned from Monday night's regularly scheduled meeting.

What is not new is that trustees are not having discussions as a board on important matters, split votes continue, and the public still doesn't have an answer on why a board majority is against extending the current superintendent's contract.

In a 5-3 vote with one abstention - or nonvote - from the board's chairwoman, Barbara Jackson, Sumter School District's Board of Trustees voted Monday to accept the state School Boards Association's superintendent search services proposal in finding the district's next leader. In the search, which will include state and national advertising of the position by the association, the agency will recommend a list of semifinalists for superintendent, according to association Executive Director Scott Price.

Trustees Brian Alston and Shawn Ragin, outspoken supporters of current Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox, questioned the full board on why it had no discussion on using any other firms in the search process, a "very aggressive" search timeline in the proposal and "issues" the district had when the board previously used the association in a search in 2011.

In that search from 11 years ago, the board ultimately selected Randy Bynum from Atlanta Public Schools as the district leader. Bynum served a tumultuous two-year period before resigning in 2013.

No board members offered any answers to their questions. Jackson, however, did acknowledge the pair of trustees' questions and said there was a need for further discussion on the items because she could not answer them. But that dialogue never occurred.

Even when the full board returned to open session after an executive session behind closed doors and Area 4 Trustee Johnny Hilton made the motion to accept the association's proposal, there was still no discussion. Only the 5-3-1 vote.

When The Sumter Item asked Jackson on Tuesday about the fact there was no discussion on the questions, she wrote in an email that there was no discussion and the trustees cast their votes.

Additionally, even though she is the board's official spokesperson, Jackson said Tuesday she could not provide an answer on why the majority of the board voted against extending Martin-Knox's contract. In a 5-4 vote at the Jan. 10 board meeting, the trustees voted down a motion to extend the superintendent's contract until June 30, 2025. Martin-Knox's term ends in five months, on June 30.

"Although I may be the spokesperson for the board," Jackson said via email, "I am not able to say why the members of the board majority voted against the motion to extend the contract."

The association's fee for the search process is $15,000, Price said, and additional administrative costs could total $3,000 to $5,000. The local board has the ultimate decision in the search process, Price added.

In its proposal, the association provided a list of 36 in-state district search processes it has conducted since 2008. Both large and small districts have used the agency in superintendent searches, according to the list. The agency facilitated five district searches in 2021.