The Beaufort County school board fast-tracked one of its newest members into its top position, installing Patricia Felton-Montgomery, a career educator and critic of Superintendent Jeff Moss, as chairwoman Tuesday evening while voicing a desire to turn the page on a tumultuous 2016.
Felton-Montgomery was elected to the post just hours after outgoing chairwoman Mary Cordray sent an email to her colleagues informing them she no longer wished to continue in the role. The newcomer became the choice of members who stood behind Moss through last year’s ethics dustup.
Felton-Montgomery was elected by a 6-4 vote over David Striebinger, with votes divided, as in recent meetings, between Moss supporters and critics on the board, which included new member Christina Gwozdz of Bluffton’s District 9.
“I certainly think that whether you’ve been here before or you’re new, we all want to do the best we can,” Felton-Montgomery said afterward. “Sometimes new voices help that.”
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The other two leadership posts went to Moss supporters, with Earl Campbell elected as vice chairman and Geri Kinton as secretary. Both votes were by the same 6-4 count, with one vacancy created by Michael Rivers’ election to the state House of Representatives.
Felton-Montgomery, who unseated Paul Roth in Okatie’s District 6, had been critical during her campaign regarding Moss and the nepotism scandal that briefly put the superintendent’s wife into a new $90,000 district office job. Moss admitted to wrongdoing and was fined by the S.C. Ethics Commission.
That hasn’t changed, Felton-Montgomery said. But her experience as a former superintendent of a small New Jersey school system also might have made her seen as the candidate best able to bridge the two sides.
“I have concerns in terms of ethics violations and what that represents to our children,” Felton-Montgomery said.
“I was not on this board when actions were taken. But hopefully, going forward, we will act in a way that we want our children to act, and that’s with the highest ethics. ... One of my priorities is that we work harmoniously and that our emphasis is on the students.”
Just how well it may calm the waters will need time to play out.
Not long after Felton-Montgomery moved into Cordray’s seat, the board was presented with a 500-signature Change.org petition calling for Moss to give back the $33,000 bonus he was awarded in November’s performance review.
Later, petition organizer Richard Bisi also called on the panel to abolish its policy that discourages its members from expressing “individual negative judgments” that would undermine the board or superintendent. That policy was the basis of a letter of rebuke given to board member JoAnn Orischak last month.
Both actions were accepted by the board without comment, other than some questions about whether citizen comments in the petition might be considered slanderous.
“This is 2017,” Campbell said. “2016 is gone. I hope as a board to move forward. We can’t go back and change what went on in 2016. We need to focus on 2017.”
Cordray voiced similar sentiment in her decision to step away from a leadership role, a move she said she wrestled with until mid-afternoon Tuesday.
“I don’t want the focus on me. I really don’t,” Cordray said after the meeting. “And I felt like it was heading in that direction.”
The board’s final meeting of 2016 ended with Cordray and Orischak at loggerheads after the panel voted 7-3 to present Orischak with a formal letter reprimanding her to stop acting against the board.
Felton-Montgomery, Cordray said, already was being mentioned for other leadership posts before the chair came into play.
“Maybe not for that position, but for another one,” Cordray said. “I think the idea that maybe she’d be a good addition to the officer platform was always there.”