FOIA Lawsuit Settlement
The school board agreed to settle a FOIA lawsuit. While the district did not admit liability, it did acknowledge that “there may have been some inadvertent violations of FOIA.” As part of that settlement, the board must change some of its practices. Here are a few highlights:
- Before going into executive session to receive legal advice, it must provide specific information about the nature of the legal advice it is seeking. We have finally agreed that we cannot simply indicate that the lawyer is providing us with an “update.”
- The board will not cut the public comments from the video of our board meetings.
- The board will refrain from instructing the public that they cannot use the names of board members or the superintendent during public comments.
- Under the heading “Treatment of Board Members,” we have agreed that the board will not seek to restrict individual board members from sharing their opinions with the public or press.
The district distributed a survey about a modified-year calendar. I did not know anything about the survey until I received it at the same time as everyone else. A number of folks — parents and teachers — reached out with concerns about the substance of the survey and the suggestion that this new calendar could begin next year.
While I believe that this is an important conversation, I hope we will engage with our communities by scheduling in-person meetings in each cluster. The superintendent suggested that this may be the next step. Also, in response to concerns about the timing of any change, folks from the calendar committee indicated that it was probably unrealistic to think that we would make such a drastic change to the calendar for next year.
Internet Access for Teachers and Staff
I requested that the district change its current policy that prohibits teachers and staff from connecting to district wifi using their personal devices (i.e., cell phones). Many teachers and staff have cellular coverage in their classrooms and buildings, so wifi access is not an issue. But some teachers do not have cell coverage in their classrooms and parts of their schools. So, these employees cannot use their cell phones for almost 7 hours a day. They are not able to communicate with family members during this time. Also, they would be unable to use their cell phone in an emergency.
For the past couple of months, I have been hearing from affected teachers, and I have requested that the district find a way to give them internet access. The district doesn’t have to prohibit teachers and staff from using the school wifi. It has chosen to do that. I hope we will change course on that issue.
The District’s Failure to Cooperate with Law Enforcement
Some folks alerted me to an allegation that the district was not cooperating with the investigation of a former employee (the procurement department employee whom the district has alleged committed fraud). Essentially an attorney from the AG’s office said that the district has been exceedingly uncooperative with the investigation. Indeed, according to him, a statewide grand jury was empaneled because the district was non-responsive to law enforcement — both City of Columbia police and SLED. You can watch it here at the 12:30 minute mark. I was also troubled by these representations. So I asked the superintendent to respond (at the 57:20 minute mark). He declined. I was genuinely surprised that the superintendent refused to offer any response to these pretty serious allegations. It’s not like this is some random person on the street alleging that the district is not cooperating with a law enforcement proceeding. This is an attorney from the AG’s office in open court saying that they were forced to impanel a statewide grand jury because they were having so much trouble getting information from the district.
The district’s general counsel did say that she had helped provide some information and accompanied people to meetings with SLED agents. It’s clear that this was after the grand jury had been empaneled and people were receiving subpoenas. That’s not good enough.
Superintendent Contract Extension
We also voted 5-2 to extend the superintendent’s contract until June 2025. I voted against this extension for the same reasons I moved to terminate the current contract a few months ago.