The Fairfield County School Board of Un-Trustees

Leave it to the Fairfield County School Board to elevate something as trite as an overnight field trip gone wrong to the level of the Watergate break-in; but that is, remarkably, exactly what they did when, during their July 17 meeting, they chose to discuss the matter in an illegal executive session. And sadly, considering the Board Chairwoman and at least two other Board members were, prior to entering this executive session, cautioned about discussing such a topic behind closed doors, this cannot be dismissed as a simple oversight by otherwise well-intentioned public servants who were only trying to do their best for the children of this school district, but were somehow ignorant of the law.

Indeed, the actions of the School Board in this matter appear to meet all the criteria of “willful violation” and arguably constitute a misdemeanor as outlined by the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), reducing previous and similar violations by the likes of the Jenkinsville Water Company’s Board of Trustees to the level of mere playground shenanigans.

Perhaps the most disappointing element of the July 17 secret meeting is who, according to District emails, appears to have taken the lead in directing it into the back room: the Trustee from District 7, the most recent addition to the Board, and one who took her oath of office with all the promise of helping usher in a new era for the Fairfield County School District. Given her background and her unassailable character, she, of all Board members, should know exactly what can and cannot be discussed in an executive session. And, to add insult to injury, she was one of the Board members cautioned about the subject matter prior to the illegal session taking place.

That the field trip was discussed in executive session is not a matter of debate. No fewer than five Board members have confirmed as much. That they all have been fully apprised of the law can also not be questioned. They have. They simply do not appear to be burdened by it whatsoever.

The rationale offered by Board members that the discussion was an “inter-board” matter and was held in secret in an effort to prevent the School District from suffering another black eye is preposterous on its face. The FOIA is absolutely clear on what can and cannot be discussed in private – personnel matters (Board members are elected officials, not ‘personnel’), contractual negotiations (there was no ‘contract’ for this field trip) and legal matters (no legal action was involved with this field trip, nor was consideration of such discussed). A possible exemption might be discussion of student discipline, but the Trustee from District 7 herself said no student discipline was discussed. Instead, the secret meeting was nothing more than an opportunity for Board members to privately rake the Chairwoman over the coals for taking students out of town without the knowledge or approval of the full Board.

Whether such a discussion would be too unpalatable for general consumption is not an exemption under the law. If the Board chooses to chastise or censure one of its own, it must do so in the public eye. To do otherwise only cheats their respective constituents, who have no way of knowing where their elected representative stands on a potentially volatile issue.

The Chairwoman of the Fairfield County School Board and her colleagues have, on numerous occasions, expressed publicly their desire to improve the image of the School District and to more widely publicize the positive aspects of the District. But to flagrantly disregard the state’s open meetings law is, to put it mildly, a pretty lousy way to accomplish those goals. The actions of the Board during their July 17 meeting only affirm what many in the public have long suspected: The greatest living enemy of the Fairfield County School District is, ironically, the Fairfield County School Board itself.