School board explains why it withheld name of terminated employee

tbarton@islandpacket.comJuly 24, 2013 

The Beaufort County Board of Education on Wednesday said it still will not release the name of an employee it terminated, citing that employee's right to request a private hearing before the board.

The board had voted 10-0 on Tuesday, with member Mike Sanz absent, to approve a recommendation from superintendent Jeffrey Moss to "suspend and terminate" the contract of the unnamed employee, subject to that employee's right to appeal before the board. Board members and district officials said state law barred them for releasing the former employee's name but would not to cite a specific provision of the law or a court decision to support the claim.

On Wednesday, Chairman Bill Evans issued a statement citing state statutes that say a teacher or school administrator has the right to a private hearing, "so it would be contrary to the employee's right to privacy to disclose his/her name at this juncture in the proceedings."

State law, however, does not expressly say the employee's right to a private hearing would be infringed if his or her name were to be disclosed.

Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association and a freedom of information expert, said the law is meant to afford a teacher or principal the opportunity to keep the reason for his or her suspension or termination confidential; not prohibit the public's right to know about actions taken against a public official by a governing body.

"It's a matter of how you interpret the law," Bender said. "I interpret it as the right of a teacher or school administrator to have a closed hearing being separate from the public's right to know . . . . The school board is obligated to disclose the name of the employee the school board voted to suspend and terminate at the time of its vote."

School district attorneys, however, were conferring with the employee's attorney to see if he or she will consent to having his or her name released, according to Bender, who spoke Wednesday with school district attorney Ken Childs.

Before Tuesday's board meeting, Evans had said the employee whose termination was to be discussed could be former H.E. McCracken Middle School principal Phillip Shaw. Later, however, Evans backed away from that statement.

Shaw has not been at work since November but has continued to draw his $93,774 annual salary.

Evans and Moss acknowledge state law is convoluted on this matter and intend to lobby Beaufort County legislators for a remedy.

"I am a strong believer that ... the public has the right to know what is going on with the use of taxpayer dollars and the employment status of a public official," Evans said Wednesday. "The law ... does nothing to keep the public informed. But we have a statute that says the name is to be kept private and our attorneys tell us that private not only relates to the hearing, but the confidentiality of the employee's name."

Until there is clearer language in the law, the board "would be irresponsible to put that person's name out there and open ourselves up to a lawsuit," Evans said. "We are working actively to try to fix this problem. ... We need to find better way to walk the thin line between being transparent and respecting the employee's right to privacy."

The unnamed employee has 15 calendar days from the board's vote to request in writing either a public or private hearing.

Evans said the board may release more information about its Tuesday vote "as it deems appropriate and legal."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

Related content:

School district fires employee; won't say who: July 23, 2013

Former principal's employment with Beaufort County School District still in limbo: April 4, 2013

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