Chairwoman Chastised in Secret Session

An executive session during the July 17 meeting of the Fairfield County School Board may have violated the state’s open meetings law and thwarted efforts of one Board member to discuss a recent Atlanta field trip in open session.

Board member Marchella Pauling (District 6) said she had asked for the Atlanta field trip to be placed on the agenda prior to the meeting. When, arriving shortly after the meeting was under way, she found it had not been included on the agenda, Pauling attempted to amend the agenda to include discussion of the trip.

Ken Childs, the District’s attorney, advised the Board of a recent Appellate Court decision that states agendas cannot be amended after meetings have begun and Pauling’s efforts were unsuccessful.

Board member Henry Miller (District 3) suggested the matter be discussed in executive session; however, the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is quite clear on what can and cannot be discussed in executive session.

“I cannot think of an exemption that allows discussion of a tax-payer funded trip to be held behind closed doors,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, an advocate for open government. “The exception would be if they were discussing discipline of a student, and they must state this purpose in advance as the reason for the executive session.”

Board member Beth Reid (District 7) said last week that there was no discussion of student behavior during the closed session. The S.C. FOIA allows for the discussion of personnel issues, legal matters and contractual negotiations in executive session, and states that the specific nature of the discussion must be stated prior to entering into an executive session.

After the Board had voted to enter into executive session, and before they retired into the closed session, The Voice reminded Board Chairwoman Andrea Harrison that discussion of a field trip was not executive session material under the law.  Harrison affirmed that she was aware of that fact.

However, according to one Board member who telephoned The Voice the following morning, the Atlanta field trip was discussed in great detail during the Board’s executive session.

“The Atlanta field trip was discussed in executive session,” Pauling said.

Pauling’s statement was confirmed by Board member Bobby Cunningham.

“We hit on it (the field trip) pretty good,” he said.

According to Pauling, the Atlanta field trip was never approved by the full Board or even brought to the attention of the full Board before the trip was undertaken. Harrison reportedly initiated the June 28-30 trip to the Hilton hotel in downtown Atlanta, which was to attend a conference on school bullying, and selected four Fairfield students to participate.

Pauling said she wants to know who paid for the trip. There was no money at that time in the high school’s budget for such a trip, Pauling said. Furthermore, Pauling said she wants to know who paid for the rental of the SUV and who approved the use of a District car.

Sources told The Voice last week that Harrison reportedly sought to obtain a District bus for the trip, but was denied by the Director of Transportation when he learned that the Board had not approved the outing. Harrison said that was not true.

“It was not that we couldn’t get a bus,” Harrison said, “but that a bus was not cost effective. We only had four students going on the trip.”

Harrison said the District’s social worker rented an SUV for the trip and Harrison used her District mileage to provide gas.

Harrison said the high school did not have the necessary funds in its budget to pay for the trip and that she asked Dr. David Eubanks, who was serving as the District’s interim superintendent at the time, “if we could find funding.”

“It slipped through the cracks about bringing it to the full Board,” Harrison said. “But there was no malice. I think the intent of the executive session was to show that I had not done this with malice.”

Harrison said she did not know how the trip was ultimately financed.

“The money may have come out of the Board’s contingency fund. I’m not sure,” Harrison said. “I asked Dr. Eubanks if he could locate funds and I didn’t follow through with any details on it.”

Dr. Eubanks, however, said he did not recall anyone asking him if money was available for the Atlanta trip.

“I don’t recall anyone asking me ever if the money was there,” Eubanks said. “Board members do not ask permission of a superintendent to do anything. That’s not just in Fairfield County. That’s across the board.

“I was aware of the trip,” Eubanks continued, “and I think the subject matter of the trip was very timely. Bullying is a problem. But students were not part of the trip when the original discussion came up. The superintendent’s job is not to police Board members in terms of what they can or should not do.”

The trip, according to several sources, did not go quite as planned. Two of the students who attended the conference got into an altercation, while one of the female students was caught with a 27-year-old man in her hotel room. After only one day at the conference, Harrison’s party was ready to wrap it up and return to Fairfield. At that time, Board member Danielle Miller (District 2) arrived at the hotel, having acquired a District car for the trip, and tried to convince the group to stay another night.

The group reportedly returned home in spite of Miller’s efforts.

“It was a good conference, until the trouble started,” Harrison said.

Harrison described the altercation between the two students as “hair-pulling,” and said the 27-year-old man was only in the other student’s room for “a few minutes” before being detected and escorted out.

“All of that was handled,” Harrison said.

Harrison said the Atlanta police were never involved, but things had gotten to a point that the trip was cut short. On their way out, she said, she saw Danielle Miller for the first time.

“We got up to leave on Saturday (June 30), and on our way out, Miss Miller was coming in,” Harrison said. “She was supposed to have been there Thursday.”

Miller said she had been at the conference since Thursday, attending different sessions.

“I went separately from Miss Harrison,” Miller said. “I was down there as a Board member and didn’t do anything with Miss Harrison’s group. I ran into them Saturday.”

Miller said Dr. Eubanks approved the use of the District car, which Eubanks confirmed.

Pauling said she has requested all documentation of the trip. In addition, she said, the matter should have been discussed in open session.

“This was not an executive session item,” she said, but it appears from District emails that discussion of the field trip in executive session had been predetermined well before the July 17 meeting.

Just before 3 p.m. on July 13, Pauling sent out an email reiterating her request for the item to be placed on the agenda. This set off a string of emails between Board members between 3:27 and 5:45 p.m. July 13, beginning with Harrison’s denial of Pauling’s request to have the item placed on the agenda.

“After consulting with (J.R. Green, the District’s new superintendent) in regard to the Atlanta trip, it was agreed that the issue had no direct impact on student achievement, therefore I chose not to place the item on the agenda,” Harrison wrote. “I have advised Mr. Green that it would be in the best interest to provide the documentation in an attempt to answer any questions surrounding the policy and process which was followed. As I have stated, I will be willing to accept any responsibility for any actions which were not in alignment with protocol. If there are any questions that I need to answer or any action that any Board member would like to take against myself after the information has been received, that is your right. Thanks for your understanding.”

Reid then injected the secret session suggestion.

“Perhaps that discussion could take place in Exec. Session,” Reid wrote.

Harrison’s reply appears to indicate a contradiction with what she said she knew was not executive session material July 17.

“That is certainly fine with me Mrs. Reid, if that is the desire of the Board,” Harrison wrote. “Thanks so much. Have a great weekend.”

Board member Annie McDaniel (District 4) summed up the conversation in a single sentence: “(I)t appears that we need (a) retreat real soon, so everyone knows their role and which lane to stay in,” McDaniel wrote.

The emails also appear to contradict what Harrison says now about the closed-door meeting.

“I was more than willing to discuss the trip in open session,” Harrison said. “Then Mr. Miller said he would like to discuss it in executive session. Probably because it was an assault on me. Maybe it was to protect the image of the Board, because there were some harsh things said.”

Henry Miller said he felt the need to discuss the matter in secret so that rumors about the trip could be properly dispelled.

“I wanted to hear it from the person who took the trip,” he said. “It wasn’t secret. I just wanted to know the truth. Sometimes it’s better if you can sit down and ask questions and not have it blow out of proportion.”

“There were several Board members who were involved in it,” Reid said. “It was an inter-Board discussion on a field trip and we didn’t think it needed to be public.”

In spite of the emails, Harrison maintains that she would have preferred to have the matter aired out in public.

“I wish it could have taken place in open session,” she said, “so I could have addressed some of the misconceptions.

“I cannot wait until November,” Harrison added, “so I can give up this seat (as Chairwoman). Because it is a very hot seat.”

Although the Board has not asked her to do so, Harrison said she would be willing to reimburse the District for the trip, if necessary.

“I’m willing to bight that bullet,” Harrison said. “I am willing to take responsibility. I don’t want (the District’s social worker) to get into trouble. She was just trying to do something good for students. I’m not going to let her take the fall for it.”