County, FCSD disagree on ‘Promise’

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County and the Fairfield County school district still have some homework to finish before a plan allowing students to attend college at no cost takes effect.

County Council on Monday approved its version which would cover college costs for qualifying Fairfield County students enrolling in Midlands Technical College’s Winnsboro campus.

The vote was 5-1 with Councilman Douglas Pauley opposing. Councilman Mikel Trapp left the meeting before the vote, which followed a 60-minute executive session.

However, it is not clear exactly what the council actually approved.

Council members voted to “approve the Promise Program agreement as amended,” according to the motion to approve.

It was not disclosed in public session what those amendments are.

Council Chairman Neil Robinson wouldn’t release a copy of the agreement or even a summary of the new amendments, saying after the meeting that the county’s attorney needed time to draft the formal document.

The S.C. Freedom of Information Act states that negotiations incident to proposed contracts can be discussed behind closed doors, but contracts themselves become public once entered into.

“These documents are not exempt from disclosure once a contract is entered into,” the law reads.

The Promise Program’s reception has been mixed since the school district announced the proposal in May.

A majority of school board and council members have touted the Promise Program as an opportunity for Fairfield students to receive a college education that otherwise would remain out of reach. They also see it as a way to facilitate economic development.

Critics have raised concerns about cost, lack of course offerings and accountability.

On Monday night, Ridgeway resident Randy Bright said while he supports the Promise Program’s general premise, the lack of course offerings at MTC concern him.

“We need to leverage MTC. We need to offer enough classes to make this a viable situation for our Fairfield County students,” Bright said. “The last time I looked the Fall schedule had 12 entire classes. Most of them were germane to basic studies. It needs to be a more robust program.”

Differences between the agreement signed by the school district last month and what some council members say they want to approve for the Promise Program were enough to concern Councilman Moses Bell, but not enough for him to vote against the deal.

“Let me discuss my reservation to the new agreement. At this point we do not know whether they [school board members] agree. Do we give them a courtesy review?” Bell asked. “We may be looked upon as a group that can’t keep its word. Yes, I definitely want the promise program to educate the students of Fairfield County, regardless of circumstance.”

While one council member told The Voice that the school district jumped the gun by signing an agreement last month that the county had not yet agreed to, Bell said he thought the school district should have been allowed to view the county’s modifications before it gave final approval on Monday night.

Robinson said the county would share its version of the contract [with the school district] now that it is approved.

“The reason they haven’t got any copies is because this is the official [document] we’ve agreed upon now … I’m sure they will view it and make notes as they see fit.”

However, at least one council member disagrees that the council has actually approved an agreement at all.

Councilman Jimmy Ray Douglas told The Voice that council’s vote was only ‘approving’ that the Promise Program is a good thing, not a vote for approval of the agreement that was presented to them in executive session.

The agreement that was included in the school board packet and voted on was identified as a Memorandum of Understanding.

Councilwoman Bertha Goins said it is only natural that the agreement the council approved Monday night would evolve from the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed in July. But the July 8 MOU ‘agreement’ signed by representatives of the council, school board and Midlands Tech was half a page long and lacked specifications that were included in the three-page agreement approved later in July by the school board.

“It’s my understanding this began with the [July 8] MOU to understand the process,” Goins said. “Both parties have the discretion of choosing their own avenue of how to do the proceeds.”

The Fairfield County school board’s meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 20. It will be held at the District Office Auditorium, with executive session starting at 6 p.m. and the regular meeting following.

An agenda for the meeting had not been published as of Tuesday, though the Promise Program is likely to be discussed.