Monday, July 25, 2011

Are Annie McDaniels's questions inappropriate?

When I read that a school board member can't get questions answered -- questions about public information, about how public dollars are being spent, about public policy, about implementation of plans -- I worry about the professionalism of that board, and the health and well-being of the school district it governs.

This is the case in Fairfield County, as reported by the Herald Independent last week. Board member Annie McDaniel raised several questions that went unanswered, and even said she'd had to file Freedom of Information Act requests to find answers, still to no avail.

What is going on in Fairfield County? Is information being withheld from board members? For a district that advertises itself as "excellence created by example," what sort of example is this setting?

The newspaper's article indicated that some "heated" dialogue began between McDaniel and Board Chairman Ron Smith over a proposed new student conduct code. McDaniel asked seemingly harmless and entirely appropriate questions about parental involvement in the development of the code, and whether the board had allowed sufficient time for public review before approving the new document.

This apparently set Smith on edge.

Board member Annie McDaniel asked for more time to review the Code before the Board voted to approve the document. McDaniel also asked if parents had been involved in the revisions and if the revised document would be available for review by the public.

Danny Miller, Director of Transportation as well as head of school security, was involved, along with the Student Disciplinary Committee, in the revision of the Code of Conduct. He told McDaniel that parents had been involved in the process, although he could not give an exact number.

The Board found themselves under some pressure to approve the revised Code, as they face printing deadlines in order to have the new Code available to parents and students prior to the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year. Board member Henry Miller and Board Chairman Ron Smith suggested that the Code could be voted on now with changes or corrections to come through the committee and administration. Smith, after consulting with the District’s attorney, Ken Childs, suggested reserving July 19 for a Special Called meeting, if necessary, for the Board to vote on any changes. Board member Danielle Miller made a motion to that effect. Henry Miller offered the second.

McDaniel again asked how, under such a time line, the public would be apprised of changes to the Code. Smith then admonished McDaniel for not being prepared and for not having reviewed the Code, which he said had been posted to the District’s Web site last Thursday.

“Just because I asked the question, does not mean I am trying to attack or antagonize you in any way,” McDaniel said. “Why you always take it that way, I do not know. As the Chair, if do not want to answer my question, that’s fine. But you ask all the questions of the attorney like he’s a member of the Board, and he’s not.”

“I’ve asked for legal way to do things so we don’t have to re-do them,” Smith answered.

“The questions I asked were not legal,” McDaniel said.

“We’ve answered your questions,” Smith said. “We have a motion on the floor. We have a second. We’ll allow you time to bring your questions that you could have brought today. Bring your questions to the Committee, to Ms. Harrison. If you see any changes, we’ll have a special called Board meeting. I think that’s being very accommodating.”

“But my question was regarding the students,” McDaniel said, “the people that we serve, and the people that elected us to serve them.”

“And they elected us to serve them and make the decisions on these types of functions without having a community forum,” Smith said.

That wasn't the only issue causing heartburn. Apparently various entities have developed communications plans for the district, but none has been adopted. The board contracted with a public relations firm, Maxim Communications, which developed a communications plan that was scrapped -- without any further explanation -- when the contract with the firm was terminated. The board's own Safety Committee, chaired by board member Bobby Cunningham, has drafted a crisis communications plan to be incorporated into a comprehensive plan, but Cunningham's contribution has been ignored, too. Now, a new Communications Committee, which once was called the Student Recognition Committee, has been tasked with drafting another one. When McDaniel asked Smith to outline the new committee's responsibilities, and why the district is no longer using the plan that it paid Maxim Communications to develop, the answers she received were oddly unsatisfactory.

“I’ve never seen a PR plan,” Smith said, “other than the PR agency (Maxim Communications), which we terminated the contract with. It saved the District a lot of money.”

McDaniel asked why a plan that was paid for by the District was being thrown out. Dr. Patrice Robinson, Superintendent, told the Board that there was no comprehensive PR plan for the District and that the Committee was working on one. Board member Bobby Cunningham said the Safety Committee, which he chairs, had developed a crisis communication plan to be part of the overall communication plan, but that it had been shelved.

“My people worked very hard on what we did on that committee and it got shelved right quick,” Cunningham said. “I’m through with it.”

Is there a reason why the Fairfield School District paid for a public relations and communications plan, then threw it out when the contract with its developer was ended?

Is there a reason why the crisis communications plan developed by the board's own Safety Committee isn't being included in the newest version of a communications plan?

Are some board members' right and privileges being taken more seriously than others'?

And why are the fees paid to the school district's attorney not considered public information? Is the district's attorney being paid with public dollars? Aren't board members themselves the ones who contract with, and approve the expenditures paid to, its board attorney? If these things are so, then why can't board members be given information about the attorney's fees?

McDaniel then, as she has done in several previous meetings, asked for an itemized accounting of the District’s attorney’s fees. McDaniel said she has even gone as far as submitting a request for the fees under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but has yet to see them.

Dr. Robinson said McDaniel had been supplied with the legal fees, but that McDaniel was asking for details to which, under advice from the attorney, she was not privileged. Childs said some of the details of his activities are protected by attorney-client privilege and that they belong to the entire Board, not to one member of the Board.

“The same man whose information we’re asking to see is making the decision as to whether or not we can see it?” McDaniel asked. “I want that on the record.”

Something about this answer does not compute. McDaniel has asked for details of an attorney's expenses, which are paid for by the school board. The attorney's answer is that the details of his expenses "belong to the entire Board" but apparently cannot be given to "one member of the Board."

Then why not make those details available for review by the entire board?

What is going on in Fairfield County?

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