Chairwoman Clears Chambers

Council Divided on Protocol

STEM School Seeks County Funding

And then there were none – Council holds forth in an empty chamber Monday after the Chairwoman cleared the room.

And then there were none – Council holds forth in an empty chamber Monday after the Chairwoman cleared the room.

WINNSBORO – A plea Monday night from students, teachers and administrators from the Midlands STEM Institute Charter School (MSICS) for funding assistance from County Council met with a cool reception from the Council Chairwoman who eventually cleared the chamber after her third warning to refrain from applause was violated.

Chairwoman Carolyn Robinson (District 2) gaveled the standing room only audience twice after appeals for funding by a pair of elementary aged children elicited enthusiastic applause and warned that a third such outburst would result in the clearing of the chambers. Robinson then asked a small contingent of the STEM supporters to leave the meeting before proceeding with the second public comment segment of the night.

“I think Mrs. Brown (Clerk to Council, Shryll) advised you that you could not discuss funding with us tonight,” Robinson said after asking the supporters to exit.

Council’s bylaws contain no prohibition against requesting funding during the second public comment portion of the meeting, stating only that “Input will be for items not currently on Council’s agenda or under Council’s consideration. The subject matter shall be related to and limited to items, issues and topics regarding Fairfield County.”

“Council does not have anything to do except collect the taxes on your tax notices for schools,” Robinson continued. “This is a subject that has to be dealt with with your Fairfield County delegation, which is Sen. (Creighton) Coleman and Mrs. (MaryGail) Douglas, as well as your school board. County Council has zero to do with funding for schools. If you had been attending our budget work sessions you would have seen there’s not one thing in our County budget that associates and deals with Fairfield County schools.”

Asserting a point of order, Councilman Billy Smith (District 7) asked Robinson to hold her comments until County Council time, as she had similarly requested of Councilman Kamau Marcharia earlier in the meeting. Nevertheless, Robinson forged ahead, telling Smith she was “taking personal privilege.”

In Roberts Rules of Order, under which Council operates, a “point of privilege” allows a council member to interrupt a speaker to complain about room temperature, lighting, noise, etc. It does not, however, provide a member a platform from which to engage in open debate or dispense their opinion on a subject.

“You need to also check and see the lawsuit that’s out there and has been out there a long time with Chester County,” Robinson continued, addressing the remaining STEM crowd. “They’re doing the same thing of trying to get the funds to go to Chester County for the students in Chester to go there that you’re doing right now with this school.”

Robinson’s uncertain reference to the four-year-long Mitford Case left many in the audience scratching their heads. The lawsuit, filed by Fairfield County Schools in July of 2010, was an effort to block legislation that required Fairfield to pay Chester County Schools 103 percent of Chester’s prior year per-pupil cost for each of the approximately 200 Mitford student enrolled in Chester schools. The case reached its end a little over a year ago when the S.C. Supreme Court ruled 3-2 in favor of the legislation and of Chester County Schools.

State education per pupil dollars – a little more than $5,700 – follow students to whatever public school they attend, including Chester County and including the STEM Charter School. What the 2010 legislation achieved was to send an additional $10,000 or so in local funds along with it – funds that do not currently follow students to charter schools.

When public comment continued, Marie Milam, Executive Director of MSICS, told Council that the school had been squeaking by on the $5,709 in state per pupil money, yet accomplishing great things. Barred from asking directly for financial assistance, Milam asked Council for moral support.

“We are a struggling school, in terms of finances,” Milam said. “All new schools go through that. We are asking for your support in terms of your voice, in terms of your opinions, in terms of your judgment.”

Closing the public comment segment, Douglas (D-41) told Council she was disappointed in how the applause for the children was gaveled away.

“I am embarrassed,” Douglas said. “I’m embarrassed at what these children witnessed here tonight. They don’t know that it is the School District that controls that money. I have sat here on many occasions and have seen children come to this place and we have applauded them, we have encouraged them. And for us to let them leave tonight without that encouragement for having come, I am disappointed in that.”

But it was Smith’s chiding of Robinson during County Council Time that elicited the applause that broke the camel’s back.

“I’m embarrassed by what happened here tonight,” Smith said. “We shouldn’t conduct ourselves up here that way. If we’re not going to allow clapping, Madame Chair, we don’t need to allow it any time. We had clapping earlier in this chamber and nothing was said because it was something that we were all amenable to and we all appreciated it. Some folks may not appreciate what those folks from STEM came in here and said, but I certainly did and I don’t see a problem with applause if we’re going to allow it at another time.”

The ovation for Smith was short lived. Robinson dropped the gavel and called for the room to be cleared. Only Council, members of the administrative staff and the media remained.

With the room now virtually empty, Smith was allowed to continue his comments.

“You already got most of them I was talking to out of here,” Smith said to Robinson. “We ought to be fair about things. If we’re going to allow something, then allow it. If not, then don’t. Either way I’m fine. But let’s just set a decision and then go from there.”

Robinson said applause was reserved for presentations. The public comment segments of the meetings, in which each speaker is limited to 3 minutes, are for receiving information and for discussion items.

“Asking for funding during that 3 minutes is not a presentation,” Robinson said. “For them to have properly done this tonight, they should have come to the Presentation Committee and asked for a time to come and make that presentation to us.”

Councilman Dan Ruff (District 1), however, said the matter could have been handled with a softer touch.

“I understand that applause rule,” Ruff said, “but I think there are some times when we can allow a little latitude, especially when there’s children involved, and maybe a little bit more diplomatic way of handling it when they do applaud.”

When Robinson asked Ruff for specific suggestions on how the matter could have been handled, Ruff said it could have been done in “a little kinder way.”

“Say, ‘I appreciate ya’ll’s interest in this, but we have an applause rule that we can’t allow it’,” Ruff offered. “I think it’s just a better way of handling it so we don’t disrupt everything like happened here tonight. I’m not condemning you; I just think there’s a better way—”

“I already asked them three times,” Robinson interrupted.

“I guess it was the way you asked,” Ruff said.

“I’m sorry?” Robinson asked.

“That’s just my opinion,” Ruff said. “I’m just making a suggestion.”

When Councilman Walter Larry Stewart (District 3) also suggested Robinson could have handled it better, Robinson for the second time in her tenure as Chairwoman referred to her own rashness.

“Sitting in this position, you have to make snap decisions and you can’t always think how ya’ll want us to think,” she said. “The adults sitting there should have been able to tell those children to behave and not participate.”

Robinson also called her decision last June to change her vote and support cuts to County allocations to social programs a “snap decision” (see the June 12 edition of The Voice).

Robinson did receive some support, however, from Marcharia (District 4) and Mary Lynn Kinley (District 6).

“This is a business meeting,” Kinley said, “and my thought is why did they not come at budget time? I think the budget time is for those kinds of requests. In a business meeting you have to have your rules and you have to abide by them or you’re going to have chaos.”

“You gave them ample warning not to do that,” Marcharia agreed, “but maybe we definitely need to make it clear – we’ve always had that rule about clapping.”

Still, Marcharia said, Council was not likely to be viewed in a positive light after Monday night.

“You go on their Web site tonight and we’re going to look like animals,” he said.