Gaps evident in meeting recording

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County School District leadership says it has ample reserves to help offset an expected $2.7 million shortfall in next year’s budget.

However, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for members of the public to fully understand where things stand financially because of gaps in the recording of budget discussions.

There were two distinct gaps in a recording of the March board meeting, raising questions about the district’s ability to live stream the next meeting on April 21.

Board Chairman William Frick did not respond to emailed questions from The Voice about the time gaps.

The first time gap occurred at the 33:56 mark.

Kevin Robinson, the district’s chief financial officer, was discussing reasons for the budget shortfall when he’s cut off mid-sentence.

“So I’ve actually been in contact with the county-” Robinson says, and then the video suddenly segues to District Superintendent Dr. J.R. Green discussing the deficit’s potential impact on operations.

It’s unclear exactly how much missing time existed during the first time gap. The time marks on the video do not reflect a gap.

The next gap occurs at the 41:31 mark.

Moments before the time gap, Green and board trustee Paula Hartman are engaged in a discussion about how to cover the shortfall, with the conversation delving into personnel.

Just as Hartman begins to ask a follow up question, the video and audio suddenly cut to board chairman William Frick giving assurances that the district will cover expenditures.

It’s also unclear how much missing time existed during the second time gap.

Another audio issue occurs at the 43:20 mark, when there’s a serious degradation in audio volume, making the meeting essentially inaudible from that point.

Jay Bender, a media law attorney with the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, said it’s only a violation of state law when live recordings of government meetings are altered. Doing so later on, however, casts doubt on the district’s credibility, he said.

“It tells me that in spite of published obituaries, Rose Mary Woods probably still lives, and she’s found employment in a school district,” Bender said.

Woods, the former secretary to President Richard M. Nixon, is known for partially erasing recordings on the Nixon tapes. She died in 2005, according to media reports.

At the March board meeting, Robinson attributed most of the $2.7 million shortfall to four sources, all related to the failed VC Summer nuclear reactor expansion.

Tax revenues from two properties directly associated with VC Summer were $1.1 million less than projected.

Robinson said another $900,000 was tied to the failed reactor site itself. The third source consisted of land previously owned by SCANA that has been reclassified as non-profit, resulting in another $500,000 in lost tax revenue.

The fourth source could not be determined because it’s at this point where the first time gap occurs.

Green said the district is evaluating options, such as dipping into the district’s $11 million surplus which had been held in reserve for staff bonuses, or reducing expenditures. Though Green stopped short of recommending eliminating positions, he didn’t rule it out either.

“Based on our projections, we are going to have a shortfall. And if this is our new normal, then we are going to have to make some adjustments,” Green said. “We’re going to have to find a way to reduce expenditures. Eighty percent of our expenditures are tied to personnel.”

Another budget update is scheduled for the board’s April 21 meeting, according to a published agenda.

In preparing for the April 21 meeting, however, the district likely violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

On Tuesday, April 7, the board held an unannounced meeting via the video conferencing app Zoom. The meeting was designed as a test run for the April 21 meeting, which will be streamed live to promote social distancing in response to the coronavirus.

State law requires government bodies to provide 24 hours of public notice before any meeting, which means the April 7 meeting likely violated FOIA, Bender, the press association attorney, said.

The FOIA defines a meeting as “convening a quorum of the constituent membership of a public body, whether corporeal or by means of electronic equipment, to discuss or act upon a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory powers.”

Frick said no violation occurred, likening the April 7 meeting to a casual lunch or other chance gathering.

“Board members participated in a Zoom call to make sure all could access the platform and become familiar with the operation,” Frick said. “No action taken, no discussion of district business. Essentially the same as when we are in the same room at a conference or if four of us ate lunch together.”

Bender disagreed.

“Technically that’s a violation because they were discussing a technique for having the meeting, and that’s something they have control over,” Bender said. “It probably would’ve been instructive for the public to have access to that transaction so they can determine whether or not to place any faith in the legitimacy of a meeting held over Zoom.”

In its recent preparation for a Zoom meeting, Fairfield county council complied with the law and avoided a quorum by holding two test run sessions with three members of council attending each test run.