It was late in the evening, with several items to go and the clock running down on the Beaufort County school board’s meeting, and a board member had just failed to make another last minute change to the body’s new draft handbook.
The motion failed, 7-1, with only Port Royal representative Joseph Dunkle voting in favor of his suggestion — that the board should throw out a seldom-used policy that it can have police officers escort unruly public speakers from meetings.
“Dunkle’s the only one thick enough to remove it,” board member Paul Roth hurled a barb at his peer before acting board chairwoman Laura Bush could move the body along to the next proposed change. She demanded order and the meeting rolled on.
Not quite what David Striebinger had hoped for on the night the school board eventually approved the new policy manual his committee had spent six months crafting in hopes of smoothing much of the board’s apparent dysfunction.
The manual, portions of which hadn’t been updated in years, is now more streamlined and succinct, its policies more modern and relevant. But the revamp hasn’t solved the board’s lack of cohesion, or the bursts of frustration and confusion that are common at its regular meetings.
Still, Streibinger said Wednesday he hadn’t expected it to fix everything, particularly the repeated personal attacks between board members that have increased dramatically since last year’s controversy over the hiring of superintendent Jeff Moss’ wife to a district-level director’s job in September 2015.
Striebinger recalls telling board chairwoman Mary Cordray once that her suggestion of getting board training from the South Carolina School Boards Association didn’t go far enough.
“I think we need a marriage counselor,” Striebinger remembers joking. “If I was in my past career in business, we would have a closed-door come-to-Jesus meeting where everybody would just lay it out on the table and we’d try to get past it, but that’s not something that’s available to us as an elected body. We can’t do that.”
Cordray and Bush have both tried hard to keep the board in line, Striebinger said, but that didn’t prevent a host of other bumps in Tuesday night’s discussion:
▪ The board twice had to extend the length of its meeting to accommodate numerous changes to the draft manual on its third reading. Only a few minutes of discussion took place at its second reading three weeks earlier.
▪ Despite the late hour, Geri Kinton motioned that the board adopt a policy that members do not speak to the media, prompting several minutes of discussion. She offered no argument in favor of the policy and did not return a call for comment about it Wednesday.
▪ Board attorney Drew Davis said her motion, which failed, was “interesting,” but did not advise them on the legality of such a policy. “No comment was necessary because the motion failed for lack of a second,” he said through a district spokesman on Wednesday.
▪ Anderson cryptically asked Davis what ramifications the board should face if it treats some board members differently from others when it comes to censuring. She did not get more specific and did not propose any change to the policy manual related to her question.
▪ Roth repeatedly said he did not know what the board was discussing, once exclaiming, “I don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.”
The board also had an extensive debate over whether they should continue prohibiting members from discussing publicly what happens in closed-door sessions. South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act does not prohibit people from talking about discussions held in executive session, though some topics are covered by privacy laws or attorney-client privilege.
Still, board members continuously said Tuesday they were not allowed to speak publicly about anything that occurs in a closed-door session.
Striebinger said Wednesday that members of the board have different understandings and levels of sensitivity about the freedom of information. Kinton’s suggestion, in particular, that members stop talking to the press, “would really have a disastrous run-in with the First Amendment,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, during the second public comment section, district parent Christina Roberts criticized the board for the night’s display.
She said they lacked transparency and respect for the privilege of holding public office. The board regularly hears similar comments, usually from the same few residents, since the 2015 nepotism scandal.
“You’re not doing your job. You’re not doing your job at all,” Roberts told them. “The transparency of the board is shot. Us the public, and I will say ‘us the public,’ do not trust you.
“We do not trust that you have the best interests of our children at heart.”
Another regular board critic, resident Anthony Cambria, said he was surprised to see so many suggested changes to the new handbook on its last reading. That was something Bush chided members for on Tuesday, telling them regularly scheduled meetings are not the place to do such detailed work.
“To bring this much out in the third reading, clearly someone’s not been doing their homework or there’s some questions that need to be asked,” Cambria said Wednesday.