FAIRFIELD COUNTY — In the game of baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out.
On Monday night, Midlands S.T.E.M. Institute faculty, staff, parents and students discovered Fairfield County Council meetings operate with similar logic after receiving multiple warnings not to applaud.
“That’s it,” Fairfield County Council Chairwoman Carolyn Robinson, District 2, said. “Clear the chamber.”
Several Fairfield County residents affiliated with MSI signed to speak during the second public comment portion of Monday’s meeting and universally requested local funding or support from Fairfield County Council and decried the $5,709 per child allotted to the school as inequitable.
“It’s true we are a struggling school in terms of finance,” Marie Milam, principal and co-founder of MSI, said, adding that MSI has grown substantially recently. “We opened our doors with 72 students. Before Christmas, or by Christmas break and returning in January, we experienced a 66.1 percent increase. Right now, we have 154 students enrolled for next year.”
Milam lauded the tuition-free charter school’s educators, curriculum and process.
“We’re building critical thinkers,” Milam said.
Milam said she feels MSI offers an educational opportunity unavailable elsewhere in Fairfield County.
Robinson said Fairfield County Council does not control the struggling charter school’s funding and advised discussion with state legislators.
“Number one, County Council does not have anything to do except collect the taxes on your tax notice for the schools,” Robinson said. “This is a subject that has to be dealt with your state Legislature, which is Senator Coleman and Mrs. Douglas, as well as your school board. County Council has zero to do with funding for schools, and if you had been attending our budget work sessions, you would have seen there’s not one thing in our county budget that associates and deals with Fairfield County Schools.”
Previous requests for financial support made by parents and MSI staff were met with applause, which was met by admonishment from Robinson. Applauding children were also rebuked, which drew groans from the audience.
“Children, I think you need to leave the Chamber,” Robinson said. “I’m sorry.”
The rebuke also drew criticism from State Rep. MaryGail Douglas, D-District 41, who had signed to speak during public comment about a series of town hall meetings to be held in late October and early November.
“As an elected official, I’m embarrassed by what the children witnessed tonight,” Douglas said.
Randy Bright, Fairfield County resident, advocated for the Council to consider MSI’s requests.
“I think you need to keep an open mind to the request of the children and the adults associated with the S.T.E.M. school,” Bright said. “You give a lot of money to NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) throughout the county. This is no different.”
Councilman Billy Smith, District 7, echoed Douglas’ disappointment and denounced Robinson’s gaveling down of MSI-affiliated members of the audience as hypocritical in light of a presentation by Rudolph Walker of Midlands Fatherhood Coalition receiving applause.
“I do want to say, I’m embarrassed by what happened here as well,” Smith said. “If we’re not going to allow clapping, Madam Chair, we’re not going to allow it at anytime. We had clapping earlier in this Chamber and nothing was said because it was something we were all up here amenable to, and we all appreciated.”
Smith’s comments became more pointed, and he voiced his support for the MSI presentations and the applause.
“I don’t know if some folks may not appreciate what those folks from Midland S.T.E.M. came here to say, but I certainly did, and I don’t see a problem with the applause if we’re going to allow it at another time.”
At this point, members of the audience, including Kevin Thomas, Midlands S.T.E.M. co-founder and board chairman, broke into applause. Thomas explained he arrived late and was unaware people had previously been warned against clapping.
“I didn’t know the full extent of what had happened,” Thomas said.
The Chamber was cleared, and council discussed the meeting’s events.
“Well, you got the folks I was talking to out of here, but going on, I just think we ought to be fair about things,” Smith said.
Robinson clarified that applause is allowed during the presentation portion of meetings, which often include acknowledgment of sports achievements, but not during the other portions of council meetings.
“Let me explain applause,” Robinson said. “We applaud when there is a presentation, and most of those have to ask to be here to present something.”
Councilman Walter Larry Stewart, District 3, said he felt the rules should be different for children.
“We have to bend the rules a little bit there,” Stewart said.
Robinson said she felt, as a mother, the children applauding could have been told not to applaud by their parents.
This was echoed by Councilman Dan Ruff, District 1, who added he felt the request for order could have been made more nicely.
Vice Chairman Kamau Marcharia , District 4, said he felt the MSI-affiliated audience members had been given sufficient warning not to applaud.
“You gave them ample time not to do that,” Marcharia said.
Thomas said, in his opinion, any warning against applause was unnecessary. He also called Robinson’s request for the children to leave the Council Chamber crass and said one child had been moved to tears.
“It’s a public forum, we have our first amendment rights,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he believed Robinson was nitpicking by drawing a distinction between public presentations and other parts of Council meetings.
Councilwoman Mary Lynn Kinley, District 6, wondered why MSI did not follow procedure for making a presentation, and why the impromptu presentation was not made during the creation of the budget.
“We could have gone in at that point,” Thomas said.
However, he said the public comments and requests for support were not intended to generate immediate funding.
“Did we expect any money to come out of the other night?” Thomas asked. “No.”
Thomas said the public comments were intended to generate discussion about local funding following students to charter schools and to plant a seed for next financial year’s budget. He said this money would help MSI with transportation, maintenance and facilities costs.
“We want local funding for that,” Thomas said.
Reach Ben Hohenstatt at 803-635-4016. Follow him on Twitter @WinnsboroHerald