School Board Chair Jan Hammond recently penned a letter to this newspaper in which she detailed some “facts” about the school board. I think some expansion of Ms. Hammond’s “facts” are required.
Ms. Hammond stated “Mr. Bland references a lawsuit that his editor filed accusing the board of voting behind closed doors. Both Mr. Bland and his editor know that the board actions upon which the editor sued the school district have been voted on in the public and that board meetings are open to the public. Just another false story to discredit this hard-working board.”
This is a reference to the FOI Lawsuit that surrounds the board’s dismissal of former superintendent Dr. Christina Melton. The facts are that on 6/14/2021 all the board members, except Mr. White, signed a “confidential settlement agreement” in Executive Session (NOT open to the public) which paid Dr. Melton $226,368 to resign her position. The board signed the agreement in Executive Session with NO PUBLIC VOTE that night. So when did the board vote on the action they took on 6/14/21? August 9, 2021 (56 days later), long after Dr. Melton left the district with check in hand. If you would like to review the case files for yourself, go to https://publicindex.sccourts.org/richland/publicindex/ and look for case 2021CP4003694.
The FOI statute, specifically 30-4-70(b), provides “Before going into executive session the public agency shall vote in public on the question and when the vote is favorable, the presiding officer shall announce the specific purpose of the executive session. As used in this subsection, “specific purpose” means a description of the matter to be discussed as identified in items (1) through (5) of subsection (a) of this section. However, when the executive session is held pursuant to Sections 30-4-70(a)(1) or 30-4-70(a)(5), the identity of the individual or entity being discussed is not required to be disclosed to satisfy the requirement that the specific purpose of the executive session be stated. No action may be taken in executive session except to (a) adjourn or (b) return to public session. The members of a public body may not commit the public body to a course of action by a polling of members in executive session.
Notice the 2nd to last last sentence – “No action may be taken in executive session except to (a) adjourn or (b)return to public session.”
Can someone explain to me how the board signing an agreement in executive session to pay the superintendent almost a quarter of a million dollars in taxpayer funds to resign does not constitute an action? I’ve asked the board this question several times, but alas they don’t seem to have an answer they are willing to share.
I do have to give Ms. Hammond credit, her words are true. She said, “Both Mr. Bland and his editor know that the board actions upon which the editor sued the school district have been voted on in the public and that board meetings are open to the public.”
All of that is 100 percent true, but it does not represent ALL the facts. The board did vote on the settlement agreement with Dr. Melton – a full 56 days AFTER they all signed it, and AFTER Dr. Melton left, and AFTER the $226,368 had been approved. Seems like an important fact…no? Also true is that “board meetings are open to the public”. However, that “fact” is irrelevant to the issue at hand, which is that the agreement was signed in Executive Session which is NOT open to the public and there was no public vote on the agreement the night it was signed. Don’t take my word for it, view the agreement yourself – https://www.lexrich5.org/cms/lib/SC01916806/Centricity/Domain/4/06.14.21%20Executed%20Settlement%20Agreement.pdf
I find myself reminded of something Dr. Hefner once said “a half truth is the worst kind of lie simply because it is so believable”.