Sumter School Board approves school tour but falls short on vote

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Published: Apr. 17, 2023 at 11:47 PM EDT
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SUMTER COUNTY, S.C. (WIS) - In a public vote, the Sumter County School Board reversed its stance on a community school tour.

However, it failed to cement that stance with a proper vote, leaving its decision unfinished. This comes after the board faced allegations of violating state law by voting in private.

The vote centers around a planned community tour of the old F.J. Delaine Elementary School originally scheduled for Tuesday evening.

Superintendent Dr. William Wright had approved the tour and was slated to help lead it with other staff members.

However, the board instructed Wright to cancel the tour without holding a public vote.

This led to allegations by prominent South Carolina media attorney Jay Bender and Sumter County Councilman Carlton Washington the board had violated the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.

Washington helped organize the tour.

The act reads in part:

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.

“That’s an official board action and it cannot be taken unless there is a meeting which has been preceded by notice and convened in public and a vote taken in public on the question. So the decision to stop the tour was illegal under South Carolina law,” Bender said.

Before Monday’s meeting, Board Chair Ralph Canty told WIS that board members were contacted by email and phone to get their opinions on the tour.

Canty said no public meeting was called because of the urgency of the matter and the absence of district staff due to spring break.

“We did what we had to do at that time so we could communicate to the superintendent while he was on vacation what the feelings of the were,” he said.

On April 12, Wright wrote to Washington that a “majority” of the board “decided to disallow” the tour.

Before Monday’s meeting, Canty pointed to concerns over procedure and insurance. He said the insurance was important in the event of a “slip and fall.”

“Pretty much felt that before we allowed any group to tour the building, we should be certain that we are on safe legal grounds with the property is properly insured and that we have a protocol so that all future groups will be treated in the same manner,” he said.

A spokesperson for the district confirmed board members have previously toured the property but could not immediately provide details on who or when.

Canty said his tally of the initial vote was 7 against the tour, 1 for it, and 1 abstention. He declined to state who voted how. He acknowledged the board may have violated the law.

“We will probably, in all honesty, acknowledge that we may have acted out of order and we will take steps tonight to correct that,” he said.

Monday night, the board voted to bring the issue of the tour onto its public agenda. An initial motion was approved and seconded to allow the community surrounding F.J. Delaine to tour the property.

An amendment was made to the motion to expand access to the tour to the entire community with a date determined by Wright but lacked a second as required by Robert’s Rules of Order (the rules by which the board operates by).

Canty moved forward with the amendment, calling a vote.

The board unanimously approved adding the amendment to the original motion but failed to vote on the new motion.

As a result, the board failed to approve the tour with a vote.

An attempt to contact Canty after the meeting once the issue was confirmed was unsuccessful.

The old school has been a sensitive issue for its neighbors after its closure in 2018 and concern over a proposed sale of the property to a nearby charter school.

Prior to the meeting, Canty said there are no plans to sell the property currently and the district’s administration has the plan to utilize the building. He declined to state what that plan is.

Monday night the board voted to move the district’s food services office to the school. It’s unclear if that is what Canty was referencing.

Canty said the board is hoping to establish a good relationship with the community.

“We look forward to creating a healthy relationship so that in the future they can have the tour that they requested,” he said.

Washington and supporters have called for the building to become a center for public resources.

“This land, this county, this school belongs to all citizens of Sumter County and what has happened has been a travesty,” he said.

It’s currently used periodically by the sheriff’s department and Sumter County Voter Registration and Elections.

He described the lack of an initial public vote as a slap in the face.

“The leadership of this school board, Dr. Canty, [Board vice-chair] Bonnie Disney, need to make sure they redirect their efforts, apologize to this community immediately, immediately organize a tour,” Washington said.

After the meeting, Washington said he is hopeful the board will reconvene to finish the work for the people.

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