The Beaufort County Board of Education “very much regret(s)” a fellow board member’s call for schools superintendent Jeff Moss to resign, board chairman Earl Campbell read aloud at last week’s board meeting.
The statement was one of two drafted by the board’s outside counsel and considered behind closed doors. Had Campbell read the other statement aloud, it would have put board member JoAnn Orischak on record as having damaged Moss’ reputation, giving Moss grounds to sue her.
Shared with the newspapers, the much longer unread statement called out Orischak by name and included language such as: “Ms. Orischak’s conduct was a breach of Dr. Moss’ contract, and undoubtedly will damage his professional reputation, as well as impair the Beaufort board’s ability to attract top quality superintendent candidates to our district in the future.”
The board’s lawyer, Ken Childs, said it “absolutely” would have opened the door for a suit against Orischak, and looking back, said he should have phrased the draft differently.
“It was hurriedly done,” he said in reference to the line about damaging Moss’ reputation. “Instead of undoubtedly, arguably might have been a more artful drafting. It was inartfully expressed.”
Childs went on to say the second statement, if read, would not have left the entire board vulnerable to a suit, and that failing to issue any sort of statement that acknowledged the board’s contractual obligations might have.
It’s unclear why the board chose the first statement over the second. No vote was taken. No public discussion occurred.
Campbell read the statement immediately after coming out of executive session, a closed-door meeting that, per board policy, members are prohibited from talking about publicly.
Childs said he instructed Campbell to read the shorter statement aloud because it followed the “KISS” standard — “keep it simple, stupid.”
Campbell did not return multiple calls for comment last week.
Moss declined to comment about any potential legal action, saying he had not seen either of the statements in print and that it was inappropriate to comment on something discussed in executive session.
Outside counsel’s relationship
The board hired Childs last month to assist them in their annual evaluation of Moss, a process that can take several days of special-called meetings.
Attending last week’s regularly scheduled board meeting, however, was not originally planned. Childs said Campbell asked him sometime over the weekend to attend the meeting after “unforseen circumstances.”
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette published a story on Orischak’s remarks Oct. 1.
“My job is protecting the district,” Childs said.
Asked to clarify which party he represented, he explained that he protects the board who protects the district.
“They are generally one and the same,” he said.
Before going into executive session, Orischak asked Campbell if executive session would include any discussion on board members’ comments to the newspaper.
He said it would.
She insisted the conversation be held open to the public and, if it wasn’t, she would leave executive session when the topic came up.
She left early and did not attend the public meeting when Campbell read the board’s statement into the record.
“I don’t regret my words,” Orischak said later. “It’s between the superintendent and me. Termination would be a board action. I didn’t call for that. The board really has no business weighing in on this. I’m not speaking for the board.”
Orischak’s conduct was “more of a public relations than a legal problem,” Childs said, but he argued going into a closed-door meeting was “perfectly appropriate to discuss the contractual implications of the newspaper story.”
He pointed to a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling that determined there is an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing imposed on the parties to an employment contract.
Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, of which the newspapers are members, disagreed.
“That’s doubtful that it’s a legal executive session if they went in to discuss what a (board member) said (to the newspaper),” he said.
In response, Childs said, “(Bill Rogers) is a heck of a nice guy and he means well, but he’s never seen an executive session he liked.”