New R2 policy targets trustee

COLUMBIA – A recently enacted Richland Two school board policy supported by Superintendent Baron Davis would make it more difficult for sitting members to access district records they rely upon to help frame public policy.

However, Davis said the policy is designed to curtail capricious and voluminous record requests.

On Tuesday night, the Richland Two Board of Trustees voted 6-1 to approve Policy BEDGA, which requires the full board to approve an individual trustee’s record requests if the requests “are determined by the superintendent to be unusual in nature, by reason of their content, subject matter or volume/size.”

Trustee Lindsay Agostini voted in opposition.

The vote came after Agostini unsuccessfully lobbied for the board to seek a legal opinion from the S.C. Attorney General as to the legality of the policy.

“Before we approve it, let’s send it off for an opinion,” she said.

The policy appeared to target Agostini because she questioned timelines on when stipends the district provided to media centers and classrooms to buy supplies were required to be spent.

She said she wanted to know why the Superintendent gave inconsistent information to the board and to the recipients about the timeline to spend the money. In the Jan. 7  2020 special called board meeting, Agostini asked if this money had to be spent by the end of June, 2020.

Davis responded, “It does not.”

She later learned from media specialists that they were instructed that the money had to be spent by end of June, 2020. which is why she requested administration’s communication to the staff regarding the spending timeline for the allocation.

Agostini cited a 2019 Attorney General opinion that said elected officials have a right to request district records in the performance of their duties, which she said backs her position.

“An elected official by virtue of the office held has the inherent right of timely access to any and all information possessed by the governmental entity that he or she is duly elected to,” the opinion states. “To hold otherwise would condone the disenfranchisement of the people the elected official represents.”

Agostini’s request, however, failed to gain traction with the other board members.

Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis and board trustee James Manning, the board’s immediate past chairman, said Agostini was acting “unprofessionally,” saying she overstepped to ask for the document.

“The superintendent feels, and I agree, that in this case there was some unprofessional activity, that what was requested went beyond the boundaries of the board,” Manning said. “I don’t feel we need to bog the administration down with cumbersome requests. I’m frankly tired of arguing about this policy.”

Davis went further. He accused Agostini of fishing for negative information to use in his recent performance evaluation.

Davis also dismissed the Attorney General opinion, saying it only applies to fiduciary matters and not communications between staff.

“This information, and I’m going to speak frankly, was solely requested for the purpose of the superintendent’s evaluation to mark the superintendent low, and served as justification for Ms. Agostini to do so,” Davis said.

Jay Bender, attorney for the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, and who litigated the S.C. Supreme Court case upon which the Attorney General opinion is based, said elected officials have the right to an expedited review of any district record, not just financial records.

Bender characterized the Richland Two policy as another method to keep secret documents that reflect poorly on a superintendent.

“It’s like having the President write his own performance reviews,” Bender said.

Policy BEDGA also allows any board member to request a document as a private citizen under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

Bender rejected this provision of the board policy, saying it’s an invitation to abuse.

“It means the superintendent is trying to find some exemption that can be stretched out of shape to keep from giving a board member information that the board member wants to evaluate the superintendent’s performance,” Bender said. “