A statement that Beaufort County School Board officers released Tuesday afternoon saying recent media coverage had “attacked the board’s integrity” was quickly met with admonishments by two of the board’s own.
Members Joseph Dunkle and JoAnn Orischak criticized the statement itself as damaging to the district and a “conflict of interest.” They did not mention the news reports about Monday’s special-called, closed-door meeting, at which they both argued in favor of bringing the discussion into the open.
“I believe (the board’s officers) are acting autonomously and outside their responsibilities,” Port Royal representative Dunkle wrote in response early Wednesday, adding that board members have “personally belittled, talked down to, threatened with bodily harm and as of yesterday accused (him) of recording or ‘transmitting’ executive session on (his) phone.”
He would not say Wednesday who physically threatened him, or how.
“Going forward,” Dunkle wrote, “I will not tolerate these behaviors, and I will no longer sit quietly at the dais. I will continue to represent the constituents of District Four and strive for a fair, open and transparent government while working to improve our school district.”
A district spokesman sent the officers’ statement to local news media on behalf of board chairwoman Mary Cordray, vice chairwoman Laura Bush and secretary Evva Anderson. It stated that media reports needed “significant clarification,” and defended the board’s actions at the Monday meeting.
“The board’s deliberations were carried out with the best interests of Beaufort County’s children, parents and taxpayers in mind,” the officer’s statement says.
The mention of children, though, vexed Hilton Head representative Orischak, who also took issue with the statement coming from Cordray, a USCB employee. “Our board chair is the BUDGET DIRECTOR for USCB,” Orischak wrote to the board in an email she provided to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. “Do you not understand the conflict of interest here? The dialogue that will ensue as a result of this letter will hurt the 1% tax in November.”
The officers’ statement also included additional information about the reasons officers called for a closed-door meeting: to discuss potential lawsuits that could arise from the board’s recent failed attempt to share sales tax revenue with the University of South Carolina-Beaufort and Technical College of the Lowcountry.
The vote in question took place Aug. 2, when the board tried to ratify including USCB and TCL on its educational 1 percent sales-tax referendum, which goes before voters in November.
An attorney for the board, Frannie Heizer of the McNair Law Firm, advised that the memorandum of agreement required eight votes, but it only received seven. Cordray recused herself because of her role at USCB.
Heizer had already told the board the same thing in June, following a May vote that garnered only seven members in favor of adding USCB and TCL to the referendum, according to Dunkle’s email.
After that Aug. 2 meeting, “questions were raised by county residents and board members” about why the board still needed eight votes if Cordray had recused herself, leaving just 10 voting board members instead of 11, according to the board officers’ statement.
District attorney Drew Davis’ research into the answer proved inconclusive — the S.C. Attorney General’s Office advised him that other public bodies in the state have interpreted the law in different ways. Some decided ratification requires two-thirds of the full body, others just two-thirds of the voting members.
Heizer had told staff of potential legal claims that could arise from the ambiguity of the law and the district’s interpretation, according to the statement and Foster. This and Davis’ findings prompted the officers to call for the closed-door meeting, which three board members tried and failed to open up on Monday night.
Foster said Wednesday he did not know how many people had contacted the board raising questions about the interpretation of two-thirds, or saying they might sue over the two-thirds vote.
Dunkle says he asked similar questions during Monday’s executive session — “what residents; how many residences; and what did they say” — and did not get definitive answers.
Board officers’ email statement
Chair Mary Cordray, Vice-chair Laura Bush, Secretary Evva Anderson
6:17 p.m. Aug. 9, 2016
News reports concerning Monday night’s special called meeting of the Beaufort County Board of Education attacked the Board’s integrity and are in need of significant clarification.
In April, the Board voted to place a one-penny Education Capital Sales and Use Tax referendum on the November 2016 general election ballot for consideration by local voters. Revenues from that tax would be used to fund two new schools, additions to other buildings and roof replacements and HVAC upgrades.
Also under consideration was allocating a portion of sales tax revenues to the Technical College of the Lowcountry and the University of South Carolina Beaufort for capital building projects that they would determine. On August 2, seven Beaufort County Board of Education members voted to include TCL and USCB in the November referendum. Three members voted not include to them, and Board Chair Mary Cordray recused herself because she is a USCB employee.
Under South Carolina state law, a two-thirds majority vote was required to include the two higher education institutions in the referendum. Prior to the vote, because the Board has 11 members, it was believed that eight yes-votes were needed for passage.
After the August 2 vote, however, questions were raised by county residents and Board members who asked why, because Chair Cordray had recused herself, seven yes-votes were not two-thirds of the 10 members who actually voted.
Preliminary research could find no South Carolina case law that applied, and a communication from the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office suggested that the Board pursue an answer from the court system. Accordingly, the Board’s officers called Monday’s special meeting to exercise an abundance of caution and to make sure that the district was on firm legal ground. The officers’ thinking was that settling the issue now could potentially save a lot of money down the road if the vote were to be challenged in court.
After meeting for about an hour Monday in executive session, the Board took no action and adjourned.
The Board’s executive session on Monday was clearly allowable and appropriate under state law. That’s because the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act permits closed-door sessions for “the receipt of legal advice where the legal advice relates to a pending, threatened, or potential claim.” The Board’s outside counsel has advised staff of potential claims arising from the ambiguity of state law regarding revenue sharing. For example, a potential legal claim might occur if TCL or USCB students – or the parents of TCL or USCB students – argued that their educational experiences had been harmed by the Board’s vote not to share future sales tax revenues with the two schools.
Once the Board became aware of potential legal issues concerning the August 2 vote, the officers felt that it was critical for the entire Board to be informed in order to protect the district’s legal position going forward.
The Board’s deliberations were carried out with the best interests of Beaufort County’s children, parents and taxpayers in mind.
Board member email responses
Joseph Dunkle, District 4-Port Royal:
12:21 a.m. Aug. 10, 2016
On August 9, 2016 at 6:17pm, Beaufort County Board of Education Members received an email advising us that the Board Officers were sending a statement to local media outlets. I personally do not condone the statement being sent without Board approval.
The Board Officers (Mary Cordray-Chair; Laura Bush-Vice Chair; Eva Anderson-Secretary) are elected to represent and serve the Board of Education's Members. Any messages sent by them, or on the behalf of them gives the impression they are representing the Board, as a whole. I believe they are acting autonomously and outside their responsibilities as described in the Board Commitments and Responsibilities, Specifically: “The Chair normally serves as the Board's official spokesperson” and the chair is to: “Serve as spokesperson for the Board in announcing Board-approved positions.”
On May 31, 2016 the Board approved a motion inviting both USCB and TCL to be a participant in a 1% sales tax referendum. On June 19, 2016 the Board was advised by outside counsel, in public session, that in order for the Memorandum of Agreements(MOA) with USCB and TCL to be approved, 2/3rds of our 11-member board had to approve the MOA. As 2/3rds of 11 is not a whole number, it is rounded up to 8. This is standard practice with parliamentary procedure.
Having failed to receive 8 votes in May, I had my doubts that a resolution including a MOA would pass. Despite this, and with the input of my constituents, I continued to support the inclusion of USCB and TCL. I was not the only person to doubt the passage of the MOA, and this is evident as bond counsel came to our August 2, 2016 meeting with four variations of the bond resolution. Not once prior to voting on the resolutions were Members advised that “potential claims arising from the ambiguity of state law regarding revenue sharing” may exist.
I opposed going into executive session on August 8, 2016 to discuss “questions were raised by county residents” under the veil of “attorney-client privilege.” I don’t think it was necessary to call a special meeting to address the concerns that were brought forward, especially since the board has meeting scheduled this weekend already. I asked what residents; how many residences; and what did they say; and I could not get definitive answers.
Having served on the Board for the last 20 months has been a tumultuous time. I have witnessed Board Member(s) bullied by other member(s) and stonewalled when seeking information. I have seen the critics of the district forced to comply with Board polices, while proponents of the district are given leeway. I have personally been belittled, talked down to, threatened with bodily harm and as of yesterday accused of recording or “transmitting” executive session on my phone, all by member(s) of the Board of Education. Going forward, I will not tolerate these behaviors and I will no longer sit quietly at the dais. I will continue to represent the constituents of District Four and strive for a fair, open, and transparent government while working to improve our school district.
If I can be of any assistance or if you would like to ask me any follow-up questions, please feel free to contact me.
Joseph R Dunkle
Beaufort County Board of Education-District 4 (Beaufort/Port Royal/Shell Point)
JoAnn Orischak, District 11-Hilton Head Island.
7 p.m. Aug. 9, 2016
Our board chair is the BUDGET DIRECTOR for USCB. Do you not understand the conflict of interest here?
The dialogue that will ensue as a result of this letter will hurt the 1% tax in November.
Beaufort County Board of Education
Hilton Head Island
C. (843) 338-1737