APRIL 7, 2010 4:25 p.m. (0)
The Spartanburg District 7 Board of Trustees took a major vote Tuesday night.
But the implications of that vote – which were to close Whitlock Junior High and the Madden Center – were unknown to the public until district personnel explained it in a closed-door media briefing the following morning.
The decision went public at 4 p.m. Wednesday, almost 24 hours after the vote.
“They violated the law,” said First Amendment specialist Jay Bender, a consulting attorney with the South Carolina Press Association.
This, he said, is because the justification the board used to discuss Whitlock’s closure behind closed doors – that is, because it was a “personnel” issue – was incorrect.
“Closing a school does not come within that description,” Bender said.
The board agenda for the Tuesday meeting – which by law was posted 24 hours in advance – did not mention Whitlock or Madden by name or the proposed closure of any facilities.
When board members took a vote on Whitlock’s closure, it was a vote to support the district on a personnel issue, so the school’s name was not mentioned verbally. Similarly, Madden’s name was not mentioned, with its closure voted on as support for a “contractual matter” being considered by the district.
That contractual matter would be to lease the Madden Center to a local Head Start program.
State law is narrow on what officials can consider a personnel matter, Bender said. It must concern the job status of a specific individual – not an entire school staff.
“This is an egregious violation,” Bender said. “I think the headline ought to be ‘School board violates law to close school without public notice.’”
Spartanburg School District 7 has landed in Supreme Court before over its lack of public notice, Bender said. A local newspaper sued in 2007 when the district failed to provide a complete list of candidates for superintendent. State laws require districts to provide a list of the final three, but the district offered only two. The district again challenged Freedom of Information norms in 2008 when it added an agenda item concerning a $200,000 contract with Spartanburg County Club without notice.
“District 7 has a history of violating the law,” he said.
Superintendent-elect Russell Booker said board members did discuss sensitive personnel issues in the closed session about specific people and how their jobs could or could not be saved under the proposal to close the school.
District officials said they would be seeking public input on the decision at town-hall meetings scheduled in the next couple of weeks, starting with Thursday at Spartanburg High and Monday at Whitlock.
Superintendent Thomas White said about 20 employees leave or retire from the district annually. Perhaps 20 to 30 full-time positions could be eliminated in the Whitlock closure, he said, with other positions eliminated in future years if other restructuring proposals get board approval.
“There’s no way to talk about any part of this without getting into sensitive areas affecting specific people,” Booker said.
When asked what would happen to Whitlock’s principal, Shawn Foster, Booker said “we want to keep the right people on the bus.”
He and White said no decisions had been made about specific individuals.
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