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‘You handcuffed us’: HCS board members have heated debate with state senator over mask proviso

Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 10:27 PM EDT
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) – Once again, the debate over masks in schools took center stage at Monday night’s Horry County Board of Education meeting.

The school board invited South Carolina state. Sen. Greg Hembree, who represents Horry and Dillon counties, to the meeting after he wrote an op-ed in The State newspaper.

It addressed Proviso 1.108 in the state budget which prohibits school districts from using state funds to implement school mask mandates.

In the op-ed, Hembree gives school districts a pathway to implement mask mandates in the classroom without having to touch any state funding, if they are so inclined to do so.

During Monday night’s meeting, he made it clear that he’s not advocating for masking people or not masking people and stated that he believes that school districts are at a better place to do that.

“The General Assembly made a mistake in my view when we got in the business of trying to manage a pandemic. We adopted some provisos when numbers were down and it looked like we were out of the woods on this thing and we adopted some provisos that quite honestly, I would look a lot harder at if it would come again,” Hembree explained.

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When it came to board members addressing and questioning Hembree, District 2 board member Sherrie Todd, who represents Myrtle Beach, Briarcliffe and Carolina Forest, didn’t hide her disappointment with lawmakers’ decision to implement Proviso 1.108.

“You not only tied our hands behind our back, you handcuffed us. You took our authority away to be able to do what we felt was right, the right thing to do for our students and our staff. Now you come to us and give us a statement on how to go around the law that you and your committee made. That’s absurd to me and that’s uncalled for,” Todd said. “Why should we figure out how to go around a law that your committee made when you all could go right back to Columbia and undo it and make it simple for everybody. I just don’t understand that I’m sorry.”

Hembree explained that the Senate Education Committee, which he is the chairman of, did not come up with Proviso 1.108. He said that during the budget session, provisos are inserted into the budget at a rapid pace, and not every one of them is read. He explained that Proviso 1.108 was last minute and was adopted by the South Carolina House and worked out in conference committee.

Todd was also upset that it was revealed last week that the South Carolina Senate would not be going back to Columbia for a special session to address the mask proviso issue.

“Why should all the school boards in all the counties in the state have to jump through rings of fire, I mean we feel like we’re in a circus, we’re jumping through these rings and you all could go back and undo it, again I just don’t understand it,” Todd said.

Hembree said that he advocated for going back to Columbia and addressing the issues. But he explained that when House and Senate leadership talked to members, there were not enough votes to come back to Columbia and make a change to the proviso.

“The only thing worse than going back is going back, spending taxpayer money, time, effort, energy and frustration and not get it done. That would have been worse than not going back,” Hembree explained.

He also added that South Carolina lawmakers aren’t the only ones that can overwrite the proviso and that the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control can step in.

“They don’t need our permission, if they think it’s such a darn good idea, go ahead and do it, but they wouldn’t. Now that troubles me because they’re writing this narrative that the only one that can do it is the General Assembly and that’s just not so. The governor could have done it, DHEC could have done it, local school boards can do it, there’s even an argument that a local government can do it,” Hembree said.

Superintendent Dr. Rick Maxey addressed Hembree’s pathway for school districts to implement mask mandates without breaking state law, and he said that he disagreed with some of the points Hembree made.

He pointed to certain wording that is used in Proviso 1.108 and also how federal funds are appropriated to school districts through the state.

“My advice to you as board members to not pursue the use of federal funds to support a mask mandate because it is clearly spelled out in the appropriations bill that would be a violation,” Maxey explained.

Maxey said his interpretation of the readings is just an opinion, but he said the true opinion lies with the South Carolina Supreme Court and that the Horry County Board of Education needs to wait on the court’s ruling before any action is taken on masks in schools.

“I cannot support going out on a limb and taking a chance and then having to spend taxpayer’s money to defend a case,” Maxey said.

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