The committee giving recommendations for reopening Horry County schools does not meet in public, and district officials stand firm in their decision to keep the meetings private.
That process stands in stark contrast to Gov. Henry McMaster and Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman’s recent state and education task forces, which met in public, and an expert on the state’s open meetings rules maintains Horry County Schools’ approach is inconsistent with state law.
“Something as vital as how you’re going to open schools and protect students, staff and families, needs to be as open as could possibly be,” said Columbia attorney Jay Bender.
Consisting of teachers, administrators, district staff, parents, and students, the school district’s task force is responsible for creating recommendations for reopening school in the COVID-19 era. The group has been tasked with trying to balance the recommendations of the state plan with local needs.
School district spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said the Horry County Schools Re-Opening Task Force advises Superintendent Rick Maxey and the district’s executive team. She said the district does not consider the committee a public body subject to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“Since they [the committee] were selected by staff and not by the Board of Education, their meetings are not public and official minutes have not been taken,” Bourcier said via email.
“If the committee makes recommendations that will go to the board, the committee is a public body,” Bender said, citing a decision of the state Supreme Court in the case of Quality Towing v. the City of Myrtle Beach. In that case, the court ruled that a committee of city staff members appointed by a city manager to make recommendations to that city manager, who would then make recommendations to city council, should be considered a public body.
Under state law, a public body must follow all the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, including giving notice of meetings and convening in public.
“This district has disregarded that decision entirely,” Bender said.
Bender said there is no difference legally between whether the school board appointed the task force committee members, or if the district staff did, because either way their recommendations go to the superintendent, who will in turn make a recommendation to the Board of Education.
The recommendations made by this particular committee will shape the direction of the 2020-2021 school year for over 45,000 students and their families.
Bender said while a move to keep those meetings out of the public eye has the potential for legal consequences for the district, there’s another even more pressing possible outcome.
“The more important consequence is the constituencies of that school board will have no confidence that their interests are being appropriately considered,” he said.
School board chairman Ken Richardson said the committees were set up as an administrative task force to bring suggestions to the board. He did not know who appointed the committees and said he’s only concerned with their data. No school board members are on the committee.
Due to the fact that the committee’s subgroups met at different times with different people, Richardson said he didn’t see any reason for them to be public.
“I would think that the board decision would be the news here,” he said.
The district did release the names of those on the committee on Tuesday along with their subcommittee divisions, below:
Public Health and Safety: Velna Allen, chief officer of Student Services; Tammy Trulove, Health Services; David Beaty, School Safety and Security; Kathy Stockholm, Building Services; Jennifer Wells, teacher; and a high school student.
School Operations and Logistics: Daryl Brown, chief officer of Support Services; Ben Prince, Ten Oaks Middle Principal; John Gardner, Finance; Col. Davis, JROTC; Rob Grimes, Transportation; Nadine DeLuke, Transportation; Kim Johnson, Nutrition Services; Joe Burch, Facilities/Planning; Doyle Nobles, parent, and Leanne Hagen, teacher.
Teaching and Learning: Boone Myrick, chief academic officer; Lee James, principal specialist; Jeremy Rich, Socastee High principal; Kristin Wilson, special education; Angela Rush, ESOL; Edi Cox, virtual learning; Christian Huggins, teacher; Shanay Clark, teacher, and a high school student.
Equity and Family Needs: Kenny Generette, staff attorney and communications; Maquitta Davis, Conway Elementary principal; Lisa Brown, parent; Gaye Driggers, Carolina Forest High principal; Elizabeth Hendrick, teacher; Lashanda Pickett, teacher; and a high school student.
Social-Emotional Health: Mark Porter, executive director of Elementary schools; Kristie Hamilton, Myrtle Beach Elementary principal; Candace Lane, executive director of Middle schools; Tonya Pickett, HCS director of Guidance; Ashley Casey, teacher; Brantay Cohens, teacher; Felisa McDavid, St. James Elementary principal.
Not every school district is taking the approach of HCS.
In Charleston County, the school district formed a re-opening committee and their Zoom meeting was posted via a YouTube link for the public.
The school board will hold a special called meeting Monday at 6 p.m.
Richardson said that meeting will be to discuss the results of a recent survey sent to district parents. He said the survey generated over 20,000 responses.
He also said he plans to make an announcement via Facebook Live Thursday night at 6 p.m., and the event on his page is entitled, “Chairman’s School Update Information – Start Date.”
School officials have said that further reopening directives will be released by July 27. School is set to begin in mid-August.