Board places Tillar on administrative leave
A majority of the Marlboro County Board of Education voted this week to place the school district’s superintendent, Dr. Helena Tillar, on administrative leave, with full pay and benefits, effective immediately.
Along with that, the same majority voted to seek a declaratory judgment from the South Carolina Circuit Court about the length of Tillar’s contract and the legality of an amendment that was made in 2014 that a “super majority” - six votes rather than five - would be required to terminate her contract.
Finally, a majority of the board voted to designate Dr. John Lane as acting superintendent, effective immediately. Up to that point, Lane had been the school district’s executive director for curriculum, instruction and assessment.
All this happened at a special called meeting Monday, July 24, in the Marlboro County High School media center.
The first two votes were 5-3. In favor were Lucy Parsons, Danny Driggers, Barbara Ohanesian, Macky Norton and Jackie Branch. Opposed were Nan Fleming, Michael Coachman and Janice Bright. Artemus Woods was not present.
The third vote was 4-3, with Branch abstaining. Branch later told the Herald-Advocate that he had abstained because he felt the board should have gone into executive session to discuss interim options. “However, I support Dr. Lane and feel he is the best option (for acting superintendent),” he added.
Parsons, the board chair, made all three of these related motions. She had turned the meeting over to Driggers, who is vice-chairman, at the start of the meeting before the first discussion and vote, which were related to a grievance that Tillar filed against her on July 20. The grievance alleged that Parsons had discussed Tillar’s employment with her administrative assistant.
The grievance hearing was the first business item on the agenda. It had not been on the first agenda that was issued last week, but appeared on another version which was released later.
Ohanesian made a motion for the board to take the grievance under advisement and have all named or interested parties provide written responses, with the grievance to be considered at a later date.
She noted that according to policy, the decision to hear a grievance or not is at the discretion of the board. She further noted that this grievance hearing was added to the meeting agenda without consultation with the board chair or vice-chair, and said the proper grievance procedure may not have been followed.
To this, Coachman said that the board violates policy in relation to agendas all the time.
Like Coachman, Fleming said she believed the grievance should be heard.
Driggers said the motion was not to deny hearing the grievance, but to postpone a decision to give all affected parties an opportunity to present their sides.
Tillar’s lawyer, Hemphill Pride of Columbia, said that failing to act that night would make the grievance moot. He also said it would violate Tillar’s right to due process and requested that Parsons not be allowed to participate in the discussion of her contract.
Ultimately, the motion related to the grievance passed 5-3, with Parsons, Driggers, Ohanesian, Norton and Branch in favor and Coachman, Fleming and Bright opposed.
The next item on the agenda was an executive session to discuss Tillar’s contract and related employment matters.
But before the board could go into executive session, Fleming lashed out at Ken Childs, the school district’s attorney, saying: “You came in here like a henchman for the wild, wild west. You’re like a hitman for the mafia. You came in here to destroy the school district.”
The executive session lasted only about 30 minutes. Upon returning to open session, Tillar recommended that the board approve one staff election and two resignations which were unrelated to the other matters at hand. These were approved unanimously.
Then Parsons made the three motions regarding Tillar and Lane.
The first motion was to place Tillar on personal-administrative leave, with full pay and benefits, effective immediately and based upon a majority belief of the board that the district needs different direction and leadership.
In the discussion that followed, Coachman, Fleming and Bright all asked for a reason for the action.
Coachman said he didn’t think the superintendent’s contract should be the board’s focus when it was still undecided where the children would be attending school in August. Branch pointed out that the board has in fact already voted on the placement of children in the upcoming school year so it is not undecided.
Fleming brought up the matter of the super majority, saying this provision does not allow Tillar to be terminated without six votes. Driggers pointed out that the motion was not to terminate her, but to place her on leave and have a court rule on the legality of the super majority.
The super majority was approved in November 2014. An election had just been held in which two board members at the time, Valerie McClain and Deborah Peterkin, had lost their re-election bids and would soon be vacating their seats.
McClain made the motion, which also extended Tillar’s contract to 2018 and removed the contract’s buyout clause in addition to requiring a super majority of six, rather than a simple majority of five, in order for the board to terminate her at any point in the future. Fleming seconded the motion and it was approved by a 5-3 vote.
Three of the five who supported the motion are still on the board: Fleming, Coachman and Bright. So are two of the three who opposed: Parsons and Branch. The third who opposed was Robert Goff, who has since left the board. Ohanesian was on the board at the time but was not present at this meeting.
Several legal questions were raised at the time, including whether the change from a simple majority to a super majority would require a policy change. The board did not have legal counsel present, but the majority chose to proceed with the vote without a legal opinion.
Based on the board action on Monday of this week, to seek declaratory judgment, a judge will now make a determination on this matter as well as the length of Tillar’s contract.
The contract contains an automatic extension provision. It automatically extends for one year unless the board votes to not extend it. But along with this, it requires Tillar to notify the board in writing that the automatic renewal is about to take place. There is question as to whether any or all of these requirements have been fulfilled.
The final motion was to designate Lane as acting superintendent, effective immediately.
In the discussion that followed, Coachman asked if the matter had been discussed with Lane. He called for Lane to come to the front of the room and face the board at the podium, telling him to stop hiding. The board’s attorney said this was a personnel matter that should be discussed in executive session.
At this point, Tillar interjected, telling Lane that she wasn’t sure if he would want to “take this on,” that she would support him in any way she could, and that he should sit down.
Addressing the audience, she said, “What is happening here is a personal vendetta.” She went on to say that she loves Marlboro County and loves and respects each employee of the school district, that the children are what is most important, and that the Lord had sent her here.
The final argument of the meeting came after the vote regarding the acting superintendent. Because Branch abstained, there were four in favor and three opposed. Coachman said this meant the motion failed because abstaining is the same as voting “no.” Childs clarified that abstaining is not voting at all, and that outcomes are determined by the majority of those voting.
Tillar then said Childs had never advised the board that the chair should not participate in votes.
As the meeting neared its end, Tillar’s mother walked to the podium and began to speak, although Driggers told her the meeting did not include a provision for public comment. She became emotional but managed to say, “I’m going to pray for y’all.”
When asked by the Herald-Advocate for a reason for the actions regarding Tillar, Parsons said she could not give specifics at this point because the matter has not come to a full resolution. She said, “For a variety of reasons, the majority of the board felt we needed new leadership.” She also said that the board had discussed the specific reasons in executive session and that “all board members know why.”