School Board spars over new policies

Hartman: Proposed Policies are Attempt to Control Information, Shut Down Dissent

WINNSBORO – The Fairfield County School District is taking steps some trustees say are designed to muzzle anyone offering alternative viewpoints.

At Tuesday night’s monthly meeting, the Fairfield board passed first reading of a pair of policies – one a revision and one a new policy – addressing board member communications.

An amendment to Policy BEDB restricts questions board members can ask during meetings. The other, BEDL, is a new policy crafted by Board Chairman William Frick that prohibits board members from using electronic devices to communicate with others during meetings.

The vote to amend BEDB passed 5-1-1. Paula Hartman voted in opposition and Joe Seibles abstained

The new policy, BEDL, passed 6-1 with Hartman opposing.

Hartman often casts the lone opposing vote on a board that typically votes in lockstep. She vehemently objected to the policy changes.

“This is an attempt by the chair, by the superintendent to control information that the public has a right to hear,” Hartman said. “This is simply an attempt to control information and board members you don’t agree with. The amendment is abuse of power to shut out dissent.”

Hartman continued by asking if the district’s legal counsel had reviewed the policies. Frick said they had not.

A revision to policy BEDB would compel trustees to present any questions about an agenda item to the superintendent before the meeting.

“Requests for additional information shall be specific and relevant to the topics on the agenda,” the revised policy states. “Onerous requests or ‘fishing expeditions’ shall be denied.”

Board member Joe Seibles also voiced concerns about policy BEDB, saying he fears that legitimate questions could be perceived as capricious.

“My knowledge base may not be at a point where it needs to be,” he said. “What criteria are we using to determine what’s real and what’s phishing?”

The new policy titled BEDL would bar trustees from communicating electronically with the public during board meetings. 

The impetus for that policy started with a recent claim by board chairman William Frick.

In an email obtained by The Voice, Frick wrote — without providing any factual evidence for his claim — that “some board members are engaging in electronic communication with members of the public, including media,” during public meetings. 

Asked after the meeting if he had attempted to confirm these accusations, Frick said he had not.

“This conduct will no longer be tolerated,” the email says. “Such behavior is disruptive, inappropriate and likely violates public participation in meetings and receiving information requests from the media.”

The policy, however, permits board members to communicate with family members during meetings.

Frick did not say how he would discern who a board member was texting or emailing with. He also did not say what the consequences would be for violations.

Board members are also encouraged to use devices to conduct research, provided they are “limited to purposes of the meeting.” Examples include viewing board materials or polices, according to BEDL.

Frick also said during the meeting and afterwards in an interview with The Voice that Hartman had stood up to take a picture during the July meeting, and that it disturbed him.

The Voice didn’t observe Hartman stand up. She said she took a photo of the audience with an iPad. The District’s video of the meeting is no longer available for viewing on YouTube.

The S.C. Freedom of Information Act specifically allows anyone at a public meeting to record the proceedings. It doesn’t exempt elected officials.

Section 30-4-90(c ) states: “All or any part of a meeting of a public body may be recorded by any person in attendance by means of a tape recorder or any other means of sonic or video reproduction” except during executive session.

The law defines the threshold of a disturbance as being “active interference with the conduct of the meeting.” The Voice did not observe any discernable interference due to photography.

Jay Bender, a media law attorney with the South Carolina Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, said board members are allowed to take photos during meetings and disputed whether raising an iPad from the dais constituted a disruption or interference.

Relating to Policy BEDL, the policy prohibiting board member electronic communications, Bender said it likely violates First Amendment protections.

“I cannot imagine how that [policy] would be legitimate. That’s a classic First Amendment problem,” Bender said. “It’s the substance of the communication that the government wants to block here, which makes it suspect constitutionally.”

Frick said – again, without presenting evidence to support his claim – that the use of electronic devices has become a distraction.  He also said several school boards in the state have similar policies.

As to policy BEDB, which relates to board agendas, Bender didn’t think requiring trustees to request information in advance violated any laws.

However, he does think such policies make it easier for public bodies to avoid accountability.

“The superintendent is probably afraid somebody is going to ask a question he can’t answer and will make him look bad,” Bender said. “What the chair and superintendent are trying to do is limit the information that can come to the one engaged board member.”

Frick acknowledged the policy originated after Hartman asked about the cost of the Honors Chorus’ recent trip to Italy.

Frick said he considered that to be a surprise question.

 “What we’re saying is you can’t ask a surprise question,” Frick said.

The “surprise question” Hartman asked was an inquiry at the July meeting about how much the Italy trip cost and how many people went on the trip. Superintendent Dr. J.R. Green said at the meeting that he was unable to say.

Green said it’s unreasonable to expect him to know on command the cost of any district expense, calling Hartman’s questions part of a “gotcha game.”

“If you ask me a question for a specific dollar figure, it would be unreasonable to suggest I have these figures off the top of my head,” Green said. “There was no expectation that we were even going to discuss the Italy trip.”

Discussion of the Italy trip, however, was actually initiated by the Superintendent’s Report portion of the agenda, in which Green and other board members discussed and praised the Honors Chorus’ trip. Hartman’s financial question came up during that discussion.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Green said the trip cost $77,102.

In January, the board kicked in $30,000 to help defray costs of the trip, leaving $47,102 from students and their families, Green said.