The Beaufort County Board of Education’s officers have called for a private, closed-door meeting with board member JoAnn Orischak to discuss a “serious matter” that “negatively impacts the board and district” but have not told Orischak what violations she allegedly committed.
In response, Orischak has asked for the meeting to be made public.
Chairwoman Patricia Felton-Montgomery maintains that a private meeting is in line with board policy but indicated in an email to the board last week that she might consult outside counsel on this issue before moving forward.
One of the methods board members have at their disposal to address “substantial or egregious” policy violations is through a conversation in a private setting between the charged member, board chair or other individual member, according to the board’s policy manual.
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However, the policy does not specify whether an officer must inform the charged member of his or her alleged actions prior to the private meeting.
When this was pointed out to Felton-Montgomery on Monday, she said, “I’m following board policy. I’m not answering any more questions at this time.”
Among a school board that has generally aligned itself with Superintendent Jeff Moss in the wake of his 2015 ethics violations, Orischak has been a vocal and consistent dissenter who doesn’t hesitate to ask district staff questions.
She said she was told early last week by Felton-Montgomery only that the board’s officers wanted to meet as soon as possible to address a fellow board member’s concern that Orischak has offended a district staff member. No other details were given to her, she said.
“(The officers) have never communicated what their concerns are, so clearly their goal is to surprise me,” Orischak said.
She pointed to another section of the board’s policy, which calls for board members to “communicate openly and actively to avoid surprises” during board meetings.
Orischak’s wariness over the board’s disciplinary procedures comes roughly six months after she received a letter from then-chairwoman Mary Cordray calling for her to cease-and-desist from “all actions which adversely affect the functions and operations of the District and the School Board.”
She said she was not told about the letter prior to the Dec. 13 meeting and was “blindsided” — and it’s why she says pushing to know in advance what she’s being accused of doing this time.
“I would like to be prepared ahead of time,” she said.
Her request for the meeting to be made public was met with the following email from Felton-Montgomery:
“The Board officers believe it is necessary that we confer with the Board’s outside counsel and seek guidance about proper and lawful procedure in this situation. The Board officers feel that this is a serious matter and must be addressed by the Board, in an appropriate and proper manner. We believe the first step is for the full Board to receive legal advice from the Board’s counsel on how to proceed from here.”
Board members Joseph Dunkle, David Striebinger and Christina Gwozdz have already voiced opposition to hiring outside counsel prematurely, according to the email exchange.
Said Striebinger in an email: “I would think the full board needs to agree on the serious matter before we agree on seeking outside counsel.”
Their cautiousness in hiring outside counsel comes two weeks after The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reported that Cordray and board leadership unilaterally decided to pay an outside law firm nearly $2,600 to pen the the cease-and-desist letter sent to Orischak. Cordray maintains that she and the board’s officers had the authority to do so without consulting the board.