Charleston Co. School District, broke state law, board member claims

Published: Jul. 19, 2022 at 3:58 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 19, 2022 at 6:42 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A sitting Charleston County School Board member is accusing the district superintendent and the school board chair of violating state law at Monday’s meetings.

Cindy Bohn Coats, the longest-serving member of the board, says state Freedom of Information Act laws were violated when several items were added to the Board of Trustees meeting agenda hours, if not minutes before the meeting began without giving the public notice or a vote to amend the agenda.

“I am answering questions and placing votes based on the agenda I printed and made notes on and it is 100 percent different than the agenda that is on that computer screen in front of me that has changed and shifted,” Coats said. “No human reading that agenda would have believed that those items would become practice within CCSD today because they were not on the agenda.”

Monday was the rare occasion when the school board held a committee meeting with all board members, referred to as the Committee of the Whole, and then had a full board meeting immediately after. These meetings are usually two weeks apart and agenda items are typically approved first by the Committee of the Whole. District policy then automatically places those approved items on the agenda for the next board meeting.

However, district policy runs into conflict with state law on days when both meetings are on the same day. This happens about twice a year. State law requires agendas to be set and published with 24 hours of notice so the public knows what can be expected in the meeting.

“I think board members are literally exploiting these meetings to push their agenda through,” Coats said. “We do not have a policy that allows us to violate state law. We have a policy that is in conflict with state law, therefore state law prevails. We choose to ignore that.”

Coats argues three items in particular were listed on the Committee of the Whole agenda but not on the board agenda when she printed them out Monday morning. Those items include a proposal to adopt a new, $10 million English curriculum, a measure to give the superintendent authority over the district’s COVID rules and the controversial move to develop a new policy manual that would effectively give the superintendent more power to set policy.

During the meeting, Coats asked about how items for the Committee of the Whole made it to the full board meeting when they were not listed on the agenda. The agenda was updated at some point on the district’s board meeting management system – BoardDocs – which is publicly accessible. However, the agenda posted on the district’s website and the agenda physically posted outside the board meeting doors does not show any of those items listed for consideration at the full meeting.

“Generally it would go to the next board meeting which is usually two weeks later, but today [Monday] is the next meeting because you have one meeting this month,” Board of Trustees parliamentarian Dwayne Mazyck said

During the meeting, board member Kate Darby acknowledged the awkwardness of approving the new curriculum the same day it was presented and made a motion to have it placed on the agenda for the board meeting in August. That motion was rejected 5-4 and the curriculum was then adopted an hour later at the full board meeting.

“We probably need to clarify the policy when we have a Committee of the Whole and a board meeting immediately following because most of the time, we put it off to the next meeting unless it’s something pressing,” Darby said at the meeting.

This is not the first time the board has used double meeting days to introduce a major policy change and then approve, or attempt to approve, it the same day. Most notably, the controversial Reimagine Schools proposal was introduced at a Committee of the Whole meeting in December. Its fate was ultimately delayed after massive public outcry, but without that outcry, the $32 million proposal could have been approved at the board meeting later that same day.

“You cannot find any moral or ethical or legal document, study, best practices that says when in doubt elected officials should use the least amount of transparency possible,” Coats said.

Agendas can legally be changed within 24 hours of the meeting, but the change requires board members to make a public motion that is supported by two-thirds of the board.

Board Chair Eric Mack has not responded to a request for comment.

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