FCSD bans board’s contacts

WINNSBORO – Shortly after the Fairfield County School Board passed a policy prohibiting school board members from communicating electronically during board meetings, one member took to his cell phone. 

Board chairman William Frick didn’t appear to take notice or say anything as he briefed the board on some updates and announcements. A routine vote to select a delegate for an upcoming conference followed. 

It was an ironic sequence of events given that Frick, so annoyed that board member Paula Hartman snapped a photo during a meeting two months earlier, crafted a board policy meant to suppress electronic device communications. 

That policy (BEDL) passed final reading by a 6-1 vote at the Sept. 17 meeting. Hartman voted in opposition. 

“This is against Freedom of Information and our rights,” Hartman said.

Policy BEDL doesn’t disallow using electronic devices altogether, but it does bar board members from communicating with each other or audience members from the dais. It is not clear what actions if any can be taken against elected officials for breaking the new rule.

The policy originated from an unsubstantiated claim Frick made in the days that followed the August board meeting. 

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.

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

Frick pushed for the police because he said the use of electronic devices has become a distraction, although, videos of past board meetings do not bear that out. There have not been any electronic communications between The Voice and board members, and Frick has not sought to verify his claims.

Also on Sept. 17, the board passed second reading on amendments to policy BEDB, which now compels board 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.”

Hartman repeated her prior objections to both policies, saying they violate free speech and are inviting a lawsuit. 

She also said both policies target her specifically. Hartman often casts the lone dissenting vote on a board that otherwise typically votes in lockstep.

Under questioning from Hartman, Frick acknowledged he hadn’t consulted the board’s attorney regarding the policy revision. She asked a similar question at first reading in August.

No other board member spoke about the policies.

“I want to remind everybody this is against our First Amendment rights and the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act,” Hartman said before last week’s vote. “If there’s a lawsuit, I don’t want to be involved in it.”

Jay Bender, an attorney with the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, has said policy BEDB as written 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.”

Hartman added that the minutes incorrectly stated she abstained from voting on both policies at the August meeting. She voted against them at both readings.