An editor of The State has filed suit against a Midlands school district for what the suit argues are violations of the state’s open meetings laws in its handling of the resignation of a former superintendent.
The suit was filed Friday by senior editor Paul Osmundson on behalf of The State newspaper against the Lexington-Richland 5 school district in a Richland County court. The case was filed by attorneys Joel Collins and J.C. Nicholson of Collins and Lacy.
The suit alleges the Lexington-Richland 5 school board approved a settlement agreement with former Superintendent Christina Melton, including a payment of $226,368 on top of Melton’s salary and benefits, behind closed doors and without public discussion or a vote as required by state law.
Melton unexpectedly announced her resignation at a June 14 board meeting following a closed-door executive session. The State later obtained a copy of an agreement with the board to accept Melton’s resignation in exchange for the additional payout of taxpayer dollars. The agreement was never presented for approval at a public meeting.
At the time, the school district disputed that the handling of the agreement was improper.
“(T)his is an established practice in our state, providing a mechanism for school boards and superintendents to mutually resolve employment matters to the satisfaction of both parties and in the best interests of school districts,” an unsigned press statement issued on behalf of the school board on June 17 said.
The lawsuit alleges the handling of the agreement violates the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Last year, a judge invalidated a similar payout to former Richland County Administrator Gerald Seals, ruling in part that Richland County Council had decided to accept the $1 million settlement behind closed doors without a public vote or discussion.
The suit also points to board chairwoman Jan Hammond’s statement to the New Irmo News that Melton would have had enough votes to stay in the position. “This statement by the Board Chair is evidence that there had been a straw vote taken. Such a vote constitutes a violation of the Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings law,” the suit alleges.
Former board member Ed White, who resigned his seat on the board following approval of the agreement, alleged afterward it was part of a deliberate effort by board members Nikki Gardner, Cathy Huddle and Ken Loveless to force Melton out of her job.
“I witnessed the hostile and abusive work environment these three created for her that would make it impossible for any Superintendent to succeed,” White said at the time. “Then they demanded that Mrs. Melton, the Superintendent of the Year, resign. There was no basis for terminating her employment.”
The lawsuit also challenges the way school officers meet to set the agenda for board meetings. It is common for board chair Hammond, vice chair Loveless and secretary Gardner to meet privately with the superintendent to decide what will and won’t be on the agenda for the board’s public discussion. The suit alleges these meetings constitute a meeting of a committee of the school board, which by law must also be announced and made open to the public.
The suit cites an opinion of the S.C. attorney general, which is non-binding, that a similar meeting in another school district was a public meeting required to be open to the public. The board had previously voted down efforts to make the board officers’ meetings open.
A district resident had also requested to be notified of the dates and times of the board officers’ meeting, but the district responded: “(I)t is our understanding that our Board Officers meetings are not committee meetings and thus do not fit the definition of a ‘public meeting’... Therefore, there are no agendas or public postings of the meetings, and no notification of the meetings are required under the law.”
The response also said the location and time of the meetings can vary based on the availability of the different officers and the superintendent.
Reached by The State on Friday, Hammond said she was unaware of the lawsuit, but defended the board officers’ meeting as standard practice during her 16 years on the board, including a prior stint as vice chair. Hammond also said board policy says setting the agenda is the sole purview of the chair and the superintendent, regardless of other officers being consulted.