Criticized by some as having lost the public’s trust and plagued by infighting, the Beaufort County school board has hired an outsider to help improve their relationship, which all board members have acknowledged is a problem.
However, the very issues that have divided the board over the past two years threaten to hinder the solution sought by the board’s majority ahead of the April 21 referendum in which they’ll again ask the public for more money after a failed attempt to do so in 2016.
At last week’s board meeting, the Beaufort County Board of Education hired an independent outside facilitator — a marriage counselor of sorts — to help them resolve their split, which stems from superintendent Jeff Moss’ 2015 ethics violations, and has resulted in a predictable voting pattern with the majority typically supporting Moss.
The problem with their solution? Three of the board’s 11 members say they will not participate in the retreat, raising doubts about how successful a facilitator can be without the board’s full participation.
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In a somewhat rare move for a board member who typically aligns with the board’s minority bloc, David Striebinger sided with the majority in a 7-4 vote to hire consultant Wayne Worner “at a cost not to exceed $8,000.”
“Something’s got to change,” Striebinger said to his fellow board members last week. “Asking people to act like adults and be courteous hasn’t worked ... I’m willing to see if it will make a difference and it may not.”
Board chairman Earl Campbell agreed, saying that this board is “the worst” he’s served on in his more than 20 years on the board.
The three board members not participating in the workshop are JoAnn Orischak, Christina Gwozdz and John Dowling, who are among Moss’ toughest critics.
In October, Orischak asked Moss to resign at the end of the school year. Gwozdz did not go that far, but said it would “be very hard to go forward with the current leadership.” Dowling joined the board after the call for Moss’ resignation, but has pushed back against the administration in his short tenure.
Board member Joseph Dunkle, who also typically votes with the minority bloc, voted against the proposal, but said Monday he would be open to talking one-on-one with the facilitator, though he and other minority members question how much actual change a “kumbaya around the campfire” will accomplish.
In a proposal to the board, Worner wrote, “While I cannot describe a specific outcome for the workshop, I can promise a constructive meaningful discussion.”
Something’s got to change. Asking people to act like adults and be courteous hasn’t worked ... I’m willing to see if it will make a difference and it may not.
Beaufort County Board of Education member David Striebinger
Worner, a former North Dakota superintendent and Virginia Tech education professor, retired in 1996 and, in recent years, led school board retreats in Rock Hill, Anderson 4, Richland 2 and Pickens. He developed a proposal for Jasper County School District in 2015, but the board did not hire him. He has consulted with 100 school boards, according to his resume.
In an interview Saturday, Worner said he has worked with 50 to 60 school boards, at least half of which were focused on issues internally or with their superintendent.
Board member Bill Payne, who votes with the board’s majority, said at last week’s meeting that he did not see the facilitation working “effectively” without 100 percent participation.
At the Dec. 12 meeting, Worner sidestepped the question on the level of participation needed among board members, leaving that up to the board to decide, and recalled one or two of his cases in which not all board members participated.
“I may come back and say nothing will resolve this,” Worner told the board last month.
For Orischak and Gwozdz, a major issue with the workshop is that the board cannot discuss anything that has happened in executive session, which is where they say most of the disagreements have occurred.
For example, the board will not be able to address the Nov. 28 episode in which one board member called the cops on another during a closed-door meeting. Instead, Worner said he would lead a discussion on civility and communication.
It was in a second closed-door meeting that day when the board first discussed hiring Worner, a conversation some minority board members said should have happened in public because the topic did not qualify for executive session.
No vote was taken coming out of the session, yet Worner presented his services to the board at the next meeting, which cost $437.
The meeting was held under the guise of the already-completed superintendent’s evaluation.
Board attorney Ken Childs, of Columbia-based law firm Duff & Childs, said then that the discussion was “a complicated personnel issue perfectly appropriate for executive session.”
No vote was taken coming out of the session, yet Worner presented his services to the board at the next meeting. According to a budget proposal distributed to board members, the three-and-half hours of work related to Worner’s video conference call Dec. 12 cost the board $437 at a rate of $125 per hour.
The timing of the retreat was also an issue for some board members in light of the upcoming board referendum April 21 and seven board member seats up for election in November.
“This is going to mean more exposure to the board at a time when we’ve exposed ourselves quite enough,” Orischak said. “If the goal is to instill confidence in the board, it may not have the desired outcome in regard to a referendum.”
Board member Cynthia Gregory-Smalls also said the board should wait a while before hiring a facilitator. However, she voted to hire Worner, and did not return a message Monday seeking comment on her vote.
Dowling argued that the board’s direction could drastically change after the November election, so spending money to improve relations among current board members may end up a fruitless effort.
District 5 representative Geri Kinton, who has stated she will not be running again when her seat is up for election in November, said waiting until after the election isn’t productive.
“To me, it just says we’re a lame-duck board and what’s the point in that?” she asked.
How much will this cost?
Last year, the board attempted to arrange a two-day, 10-hour board training with a consultant for $2,400, but scheduling conflicts arose and the training was canceled. According to a budget proposal provided to board members, here’s how much Worner is estimating his services to cost:
▪ Development of proposals (0.5 hours)
▪ Initial discussions with Board officers (0.5 hours), superintendent (0.5 hours), and board attorney (2 hours)
▪ Prep for video conference to board at Dec. 12 meeting (2 hours)
▪ Video conference presentation to board (1.5 hours)
Phase I: One-on-one interviews with board members and superintendent
▪ Interviews (14 hours)
▪ Write report based on interviews (4 hours)
Phase II (pending board decision to move forward): Board retreat and discussion
▪ Preparation of materials/notebooks (4 hours)
▪ Facilitate retreat (12 hours)
▪ Summary Report (2 hours)
▪ Mileage ($930)
▪ Six nights of lodging ($840)
▪ Six days of per-diem meals ($300)
▪ Notebooks/materials for 11 board members, 1 superintendent ($106)
*Worner is not charging for travel time to and from Blacksburg, Virginia, where he is based.