Whale Branch High School is one step closer to getting a new gymnasium and its first performing arts center after a Tuesday night Beaufort County School Board vote to begin contract negotiations with McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture, a firm selected in secrecy.
Activists had earlier expressed concerns that a North Carolina-based firm connected to the superintendent’s past projects would be chosen, but the selection committee’s first choice is based in Greenville, S.C.
The committee, assembled by the district, consists of two staffers from the district’s facilities office, a high school principal and a community member with expertise in facilities design and construction, according to district spokesman Jim Foster.
On Tuesday night, board member JoAnn Orischak asked Superintendent Jeff Moss for the names of those committee members, but he would not give them to her.
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That information hasn’t been publicly disclosed in the past to prevent members from being contacted by vendors during the selection process, he said. He told her that he is not on the selection committee nor did he select its members.
The district Office of Procurement and the district Office of Facilities, Planning and Construction jointly selected committee members, Foster said. The two offices report to separate division heads, both of whom report to Moss.
There is no law preventing the disclosure of that information. Nor does the district have a written policy stating such information should be withheld until the contract is signed.
Rather, it’s a “prudent administrative practice ... aimed at keeping the selection process as fair, impartial and objective as we can make it,” Foster said in an email. “Once we have a signed contract, the names will be available.”
Moss said Tuesday night that the district plans to present a signed contract to the board at its work session Friday and Saturday.
John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause South Carolina, a government watchdog organization, argued that withholding the members’ names until after the contract is negotiated makes any potential conflicts of interest moot since the district has already signed on the dotted line.
“(The committee) is acting like representatives of the people, deciding how money will be spent,” he said. “There’s no good reason for the government not to disclose (the committee members’ names). Taxpayers and citizens have a right to know who these people are.”
The point Crangle raises, that the district’s current administrative practice fails to detect potential conflicts of interest earlier on, is of particular importance since the fallout after Moss’ ethics violations in 2015, when his wife was hired in a high-paying district job shortly after Moss altered the district’s nepotism policy.
In response to Crangle’s concerns, Foster pointed to specific sections of the Request for Qualification form, paperwork firms file as a part of the application process, that outline policies relating to conflicts of interest, nepotism and donations.
“If these policies (from the RFQ) are violated or found to have been violated during the selection process, the district can terminate the contract if the bidder gave false information or acted in bad faith,” Foster said.
Eight architectural firms submitted proposals for the Whale Branch projects, five of which the committee interviewed.
The committee’s top choice, McMillan, Pazdan Smith Architecture, also has offices in Spartanburg, Charleston, Asheville, Charlotte and Atlanta. The firm has designed facilities for more than 25 South Carolina school districts.
Citizens Advocating Responsible Education, a local education activist group, asked the board to keep the project local by hiring architects and contractors from Beaufort County, Fran Bisi, who is associated with CARE, wrote in an Island Packet letter to the editor earlier this month.
It’s unclear if any Beaufort County architecture firms were under consideration. because South Carolina’s Open Records Law allows, but does not require, the district to withhold documents relating to proposed contractual arrangements.
Bisi’s interest comes on the heels of two major building projects, May River High School and River Ridge Academy. Both were designed by Hite Associates, a Greenville (N.C.)-based architecture firm that did work for Moss when he served as superintendent of a North Carolina school district, where a longtime county commissioner accused him of overbuilding, something Moss denied.
Whale Branch, which serves a mostly African-American community in rural northern Beaufort County, opened in 2010. It is the only district high school without a performing arts center and the only with a gymnasium considered too small for extended postseason competition.
The estimated $4.4 million for the gym and $12 million for the auditorium will be paid using the district’s “8 percent” borrowing capacity that doesn’t require voter approval.