Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the time limit of the public comments period of Chatham County School Board meetings.
The calls and comments came pouring in from friends, from fellow church members, from co-workers.
It wasn’t until a patient told her boss, a doctor at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, “You’ve got your own little celebrity,” that Port Royal resident Kerri Lewis knew she had somehow struck a chord with the public.
It has been two weeks since she had taken the podium at a long and contentious Beaufort County school board meeting late on a Tuesday night.
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Two weeks since the 90-second scolding she gave the board went viral, getting viewed at least 165,000 times and shared at least another 1,800 times on social media statewide.
Her fiance, Lawrence Maldonado, was the one who spotted the initial report of Lewis’ dress-down of the board by an Island Packet columnist on his Facebook feed. Lewis scanned the story on her Android in bed Saturday morning, five days after her speech.
She read through the hundreds of Facebook comments, smiled at the suggestions of sending her to Washington, but she didn’t “like” or reply to any of the comments.
“I didn’t want to take credit for something anybody could have done — or should have done — a long time ago,” she said.
At least once a day she is asked, sometimes from strangers, “When are you running for school board?”
She reluctantly tells them she’s too busy to be the board member she would want to be. She works as a medical assistant for a physician practice at the hospital and volunteers as a mentor for Extra Mile Club. And her oldest son, Da’Shaun, has autism spectrum disorder, a diagnosis that requires Lewis to invest significant time in his advocacy and care.
Yet the woman whose calendar is already cluttered with obligations will continue to devote hours each month to school board meetings. And if the board continues to “act like children,” she said she will continue to call them out on their conduct.
No plan, no problem
Two projectors flashed a timer counting down the remaining seconds Lewis had to make her point April 4, when she delivered her speech to the board.
Other frequent fixtures at board meetings — such as Richard Bisi, co-founder of Citizens Advocating Responsible Education, and John Dowling, another critic of the school board — deliver rehearsed remarks during the public comments portion of board meetings, their notes typed up and printed out with particular words bolded to emphasize key points.
Lewis, though, did not walk into the board meeting with plans to speak. She had come straight from work in her purple scrubs. She had no outline, no bolded words. She did not even use the entire three minutes allotted to her.
She was disgusted by the board’s conduct, outraged at chairwoman Patricia Felton-Montgomery for continually cutting off board member Joseph Dunkle and incredulous at the board’s bickering over bullet points on the agenda while her children’s education hung in the balance.
The board, often criticized for its handling of superintendent Jeff Moss’ 2015 ethics violations, has come under fire for its own behavior in the past year and a half. Board members can sometimes be seen rolling their eyes at each other during meetings. They often argue. They are suspicious of each other’s motives. And the tension between the board’s majority bloc, sometimes referred to as “the Moss Majority,” and the minority voice affects nearly every interaction.
“I’m not a political person,” Lewis began her speech. “I don’t know all of the stuff you guys have going on. What I do know is I’ve sat here since six o’clock this evening. It’s almost ten o’clock. This board meeting is horrible.”
Lewis is somewhat of a rarity in today’s age, so civically engaged that she is willing to sit through four-hour school board meetings — even though, at least lately, she said the meetings offer little discussion about education.
She said she understands why other parents skip the petty politics and Robert’s Rules rants that crop up at almost every board meeting.
And she doubts her speech has made any impact among the board members in the two weeks since she spoke to them.
“(But) I want them to know these purple glasses are listening every single time,” she said.
School start times started it all
Lewis and her two boys — Da’Shaun, a ninth-grader at Beaufort High School, and Dontray, a third-grader at Mossy Oaks — moved from Savannah to Beaufort County in 2015.
It wasn’t until this school year, however, that she started attending board meetings after the board voted to change school start times.
The district sought little input from parents or major employers of the county before the change was made, she contends.
“If you’re doing something that important without asking me, I don’t know what else they’re discussing if I don’t come to the meeting,” she said.
Lewis’ lack of faith in the board stands in contrast to Chatham County School District, where her boys attended for nine years when the family lived in Savannah.
At those meetings, which she said typically lasted only an hour or 1 ½ hours, a person is allotted five minutes to speak.
Lewis said she spoke at a Chatham County school board meeting just once, to bring up an issue with her son’s school bus arriving inconsistently. After the meeting, her representative flagged her down to ask for her contact information. The situation was almost immediately resolved, she said.
Not only did she rarely speak at those meetings, she also did not regularly attend them because the board sent out email blasts to inform the public of significant changes.
“I trusted them to send the information to me,” she said. “(But) I don’t trust this school board, so I have to be there to listen.”
Of the few other meetings when Lewis has addressed the Beaufort County school board, she focused on specific issues, such as busing. One time, though, she said she brought up Moss’ character.
“It disturbs me that Jeffrey Moss still has a job,” she said. “All of the things that he’s done since I’ve been living here, all of those things spell termination. But for some reason, to this board, it spells bonus.
“I wanted to know who these people were that were allowing this to happen, to see their faces,” she said.
Still, she recognizes that what she says as an individual will only go so far.
“It’s going to take collective voters to replace them,” she said. “I wish people would understand they are supposed to work for us.”
So what does she tell the folks congratulating her for standing up to the school board?
“Meet me at the (next) meeting.”
Upcoming Beaufort County School Board meetings:
▪ Tuesday, May 2 — 6 p.m. at Beaufort County Council Chambers, 100 Ribaut Road
▪ Tuesday, May 16 — 6 p.m. at Bluffton Public Library, 120 Palmetto Parkway