Marlboro County school board member chastised superintendent for statement wrongly denying policy violation, internal emails show

News13 Investigates

BENNETTSVILLE, S.C. (WBTW) – A Marlboro County School District board member asked the now-former district superintendent to retract his statement that, according to internal emails, wrongly said he had not violated a board policy for allowing his fraternity to operate a building on district property without conferring with the board.

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, News13 has obtained nearly 70 pages of documents that provide a closer look into the recent resignation of Gregory McCord, Ed.D., after less than four years in the role.

BACKGROUND

During the public comments portion of an August 3 Marlboro County Board of Education meeting, Dr. Rippin McLeod, the former deputy superintendent with the school district, addressed a concern about the Omega Psi Phi fraternity using a mobile unit that is on district property. During his comments to the board, McLeod was critical of McCord.

“You nine folks,” McLeod said. “You’re his boss, he’s not your boss and you need to put him in check because he’s abusing his position.”

Most of McLeod’s comments could not be heard on the district’s livestreamed meeting that was posted to Facebook. The school district wrote on its Facebook page, “We apologize for the sound quality, as soon as we realized there was no sound, we worked to restore it as quickly as possible.”

Meeting minutes from the August 3 meeting provide additional concerns from McLeod.

McCord was accused of giving authorization to a chapter of Omega Psi Phi, of which he is a member, to operate out of a building on the property of Bennettsville Intermediate School (BIS). A tip sent to News13 also suggested that the district was paying utility bills for the building that sat behind the actual school building.

The Omega Psi Phi building was discussed again during an August 30 meeting of the board.

News13 asked school district Director of Communications Connie Anderson what the building was being used for. Anderson told News13 on September 1, “Currently the building is used for nothing, but hopefully soon after Covid ends, it will be used for mentoring students from BIS.”

Former Superintendent Gregory McCord (Courtesy: WBTW)

However, it was revealed by a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity during a September 13 board meeting that the group previously had an official meeting at the facility and wanted to partner with the district to use the facility as a place for youth mentorship.

McCord also admitted during this meeting that he allowed the fraternity to operate on the property without first conferring with the board and it was revealed that the district was paying the utilities for this building.

When News13 followed up with Anderson about this newly revealed information, Anderson directed us to McCord.

McCord told News13 that part of his job was to build partnerships in the community and he felt he was doing this by allowing for a space that could help children. He said if he could do it all over again, he “most definitely” would have handled the situation differently and that he did not intend to go around the school board.

During a September 21 meeting, McCord was placed on administrative leave. The board requested an investigation into the situation, including the costs associated with the fraternity’s use of its unit on district property.

McCord was later reinstated, and then later resigned.

STATE ETHICS COMMISSION OPINION

News13 has learned through newly obtained documents that McCord requested and received an informal opinion from the SC State Ethics Commission on September 3, regarding the possibility of recusing himself during a discussion about his fraternity and building in question during the September 13 board meeting.

Two members of the board, Reginald Gaymon and Rev. James E. Smith, are also members of the fraternity. The commission told McCord in the newly obtained letter that, based on the information McCord provided, since he nor Gaymon and Smith had personal economic interests in the fraternity’s use of the building, they did not need to recuse themselves from the matter during the September 13 meeting.

However, the commission went on to ask McCord to consider recusing himself in order to avoid “even the appearance of impropriety”. McCord ended up declining to recuse himself during the discussion, as did one of the other members of the fraternity who is also on the board.

McCord was placed on administrative leave with pay on September 21.

THE LETTERS

In McCord’s “statement of facts” letter newly obtained by News13, he describes in detail the recent history of the mobile unit building in question, beginning with an auction held by the board in 2019. Ultimately, a district transportation employee said in a letter that he sold the mobile unit to a member of the local fraternity chapter.

McCord’s letter goes on to say that he was previously approached by the fraternity and asked if the mobile unit could be used as an educational space to mentor elementary-aged boys on the campus of BIS. After consulting with the school principal at the time about the plans, McCord says he “unilaterally made the decision” in early spring 2020 that the unit could remain on school property and be used for the limited purpose of being an educational space.

He went on to write that the first meeting of the fraternity was held in the unit this past July and that McCord was at the meeting. McCord wrote that on September 21, the fraternity paid to have the mobile unit demolished. The fraternity also agreed to reimburse the district a “reasonable cost associated with the unit”.

An accompanying letter dated October 1 was sent by attorney Montrio Belton, who represents McCord.

In it, Belton mentioned that McCord’s contract stated that it could only be terminated by way of: A) mutual agreement, B) disability of the superintendent, C) discharge for just cause, or D) unilateral termination.

The letter said that McCord believed the board had no justifiable reason to terminate him for option C. The letter also pointed out that option D should be exercised “only after reasonable and good faith efforts pursuant to” option A, the mutual agreement. Therefore, McCord wanted an opportunity to be heard about option A prior to any board vote.

The letter went on to say that McCord acknowledged that he should have informed the board about his “executive decision” to partner with his fraternity and allow them to keep the mobile unit on district property. The letter then insisted that McCord hoped the board would vote on October 4 to reinstate him.

3 BOARD MEETINGS IN 10 DAYS

The board scheduled three meetings over the span of 10 days in October: a regular meeting on October 4, a special called meeting on October 11 and another special called meeting on October 13.

Each meeting included a discussion about McCord’s contract during executive session. Executive session is a portion of a meeting that is closed to the public.

During the October 4 meeting, the majority of the board first voted against suspending McCord without pay for two weeks. The majority of the board then immediately voted in support of reinstating McCord, establishing a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP) for him and putting a permanent letter of reprimand in his file.

McCord was reinstated, effective October 5.

THE STATEMENT

On the morning of October 5, district communications director Anderson released a statement on behalf of McCord to all district employees as well as local media outlets.

The statement said in part:

“As superintendent of this fine district I’ve always believed that accountability starts at the top…Let me be clear, I did not violate any board policies.”

-Statement from Gregory mccord sent on october 5

His statement went on to say, “I was brought up to believe that if you make a mistake, you own it.”

However, News13 has since obtained an internal email from board member Gaymon sent just hours after McCord’s statement, accusing McCord in that statement of undermining the board by claiming he did not violate policies when he in fact did:

“This letter is yet another disregard for our authority and decisions as a board. It was outlined in the September 21st meeting that there was a clear violation of policies…”

-Board member Reginald Gaymon, regarding McCord’s statement

In his email, Gaymon goes on to request that a formal retraction of McCord’s statement be sent to the entire district stating that McCord acknowledges his wrongdoing and violation of policy. Gaymon went on to write:

“These actions do not serve to show understanding or regard for the actions taken by this board. It simply shows that he [McCord] doesn’t see anything wrong with his actions. When an individual doesn’t see any wrong in their actions then they will repeat them.”

-Board member Reginald Gaymon, regarding McCord’s statement

In that October 5 email, Gaymon also requested a special meeting for the following week.

THE RETRACTION

Minutes after Gaymon’s email, McCord responded by agreeing to make a retraction.

“I look forward to meeting to discuss the improvement plan. I admit my wrongs and want to correct them so that we can all move forward. I respect the board and its authority fully and will cooperate completely. Thank you.”

Gregory McCord, in response to board member Gaymon

On Friday, October 8 at 4:56 p.m., McCord sent a draft of his retraction to the school board. In it, McCord admits to violating a school board policy by not promptly informing the board about the agreement he authorized with his fraternity.

Despite the draft of his retraction sent to the board, McCord’s attorney says no retraction was ever sent to district staff. In addition, no retraction was sent to local media outlets. McCord’s attorney said no retraction was sent because the request was not sent by the board itself, but instead by one member of the board. He says an individual on the board doesn’t have the same authority as the entire board, and therefore could not force McCord to send a retraction.

No action was taken on McCord’s contract during an October 11 special called meeting that lasted more than three hours.

THE RESIGNATION & CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT

During the October 13 special called meeting, it was announced that a mutual agreement had been approved and that McCord would resign.

News13 has since obtained a document signed on that day by McCord and members of the school board, titled, “confidential settlement agreement and mutual release”. The document states that McCord voluntarily resigned. It also says that McCord will receive all compensation and benefits, including dental insurance, through October 15, 2022 and remain on the group’s health insurance during that time. 

In addition, the document essentially states that McCord cannot sue the district, the board or its members for breach of contract or personal injuries related to his separation from the district. In return, it states that they cannot sue McCord either. 

The agreement goes on to say, “If either party, including any individual trustee, is asked about this agreement and/or its terms, the party shall respond that the agreement speaks for itself and that he/she has no further comment”. It goes on to state that McCord and board members agree not to “make any negative or disparaging statements or remarks” about each other or face a $20,000 “stipulated remedy” that the document refers to as “not a penalty, but an inducement for the parties to enter into this agreement”.

Although the document states, “the parties agree to keep this agreement and the terms thereof confidential”, it is subject to disclosure under the SC FOIA law.

THE CONTRACTS

News13 also obtained McCord’s initial contract from when he was hired by the district in June 2018 as well as a 2019 amendment to that contract.

McCord’s 2018 contract shows that his annual base salary was initially $130,000 and his contract also included an $800 monthly car allowance, 20 vacation days per year, 15 sick days per year and other benefits.

In September 2019, documents show the board voted to give McCord a 4% salary increase, effective July 2019. This brought his new annual salary up to $135,200 and his new monthly car allowance up to $1,200.

During a board meeting on August 30 of this year, weeks after learning about the fraternity building issue but weeks before McCord was placed on leave, the board voted to give McCord an 8% salary increase and a one-time 2% bonus.

WHAT’S NEXT?

The board voted on November 1 to name Donald Andrews, who has 24 years of experience as a superintendent, the district’s interim superintendent. He will continue in that role until May 31 or until a new superintendent is found.

News13 will continue to follow the process of selecting a permanent superintendent.

News13 reached out to McCord for comment about the contents of this story. McCord referred us to his attorney, Montrio Belton. Belton says that McCord’s authority as superintendent allowed him to approve the purchase of the mobile unit and initiate the mentorship program with the fraternity, but the policy violation was for not notifying the board about his decision.

Belton says that despite that, McCord served the district well. Belton says that the district is certainly better off with McCord having been there. Belton says McCord has had a stellar professional career over the last 25+ years. Belton says he’s glad all parties could come to an agreement and says that McCord can now move on from this.

Count on News13 for updates.

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