Still closed meetings, no public comment for Sumter School District

Committee will review 11-month suspension soon, chairwoman says


As we continue the education during COVID-19 debate in South Carolina of at-home, virtual instruction versus in-person learning for students, it's been 11 months without any public participation at school board meetings in Sumter.

Some may see something wrong with that policy for Sumter School District's Board of Trustees, especially with the vast technology means of today, but there might be some movement soon on the matter, according to Chairwoman Barbara Jackson, who briefly spoke this week while away at a conference.

On April 6, 2020, at its first meeting during the pandemic, the trustees temporarily suspended public comment based on advice from the state school board association and also closed their meetings to in-person attendance, going to a virtual format via live YouTube broadcasts.

The association's recommendation then was in accordance with executive orders by Gov. Henry McMaster that prevented the public from attending governmental agency meetings at the start of the pandemic.

Those executive orders were lifted later by McMaster, and the association's guidance to boards changed as well, according to Debbie Elmore, the agency's director of governmental relations.

Now, many school boards across the state do allow the public to attend and participate in public comment as long as social distancing guidelines are maintained, Elmore said.

But the Sumter board's initial pandemic-response meeting measures are still in place today.

Now, the full board regularly meets twice monthly with all nine members generally present, plus its non-voting Shaw Air Force Base representative, donning face masks in the district office's board room. Also in attendance with masks is the district superintendent, Penelope Martin-Knox, and administrative manager, Amy Hansen, who serves the superintendent and the board.

Jackson said this week the temporary suspension of public participation will soon go back to the board's Policy Committee to review, possibly at its next committee meeting.

The committee will review it and then provide input to the full board, she said. Jackson added she looks forward to that board discussion. Any decision on changing the closed-meeting format and/or public comment is a local decision, according to Elmore; the association has no authority over school boards.

The board is not required by law to hold a public comment period during regular board meetings, but Jackson said "it has been our practice to encourage public comments as a measure of goodwill to our community, and we hope to continue that practice when it is safe to do so."

Currently, the public can still email or write a letter to their respective board member on matters. That does not necessarily mean it will be brought up at a meeting, however, or aired to the public.