Tuesday night’s Beaufort County Board of Education meeting was shaping up to be one of its most civil in recent months.
It didn’t last.
Nearly five hours in, board member Christina Gwozdz delivered a prepared speech in which she said minority members of the board have been “stiff-armed" by some majority members, who use "backroom tactics" and "unethical actions,” and she accused three board members of running a parallel school board with non-elected private citizens who recently formed a pro-referendum group.
She also called for the resignation of the board's officers.
In a heated 25-minute discussion that was light on diplomacy, board members dredged up months-old conflicts and hurled accusations at each other, all before an abrupt adjournment and a foreshadowing by board secretary David Striebinger that hard feelings will continue to fester.
The adjournment prevented board member John Dowling from reading his own prepared statement.
"You can dish it out," he said to majority members of the board, to which former chairwoman Mary Cordray responded, "No, you can't take it."
Gwozdz’s sweeping speech came one month and a day before the board will ask voters to approve $76 million in an April 21 bond referendum that will primarily be used to alleviate overcrowding in Bluffton schools, an issue that has only gotten worse since a failed 2016 referendum that would have addressed Bluffton's growth.
Some of the public attributed this failure, the board’s first referendum rejection since 1994, to a loss of public trust in superintendent Jeff Moss and his sole employer, the board, which formed two factions in the wake of Moss’ 2015 ethics violations.
A five-member minority bloc — which generally includes Gwozdz, Striebinger, Dowling, Joseph Dunkle and JoAnn Orischak — say they are often silenced, kept in the dark, accused of micromanaging administration and criticized for representing the constituents that elected them.
The board’s majority members — chairman Earl Campbell, vice-chairwoman Geri Kinton and board members Cordray, Evva Anderson, Bill Payne and Cynthia Gregory-Smalls — say the minority does not act in the interest of the entire district, runs to the press with their problems, interrogates senior staff and is often unwilling to accept losses.
“The board (votes) up or down,” Cordray said. “What y’all can’t seem to handle is you can’t win. It’s not about minority — what is the minority issue? I only know one issue we’re divided on, you want to get rid of the superintendent and the rest of us have not made that decision.”
The board attempted to address their years-long resentments with each other in January by hiring a facilitator for up to $8,000.
After the first phase of interviews with what some called their “marriage counselor,” the board unanimously decided last month to end the exercise because Dunkle, Gwozdz, Orischak and Dowling refused to participate. The four said it would be a waste of taxpayer money and a fruitless exercise given that seven of 11 board seats are up for election this year.
“There is no subterfuge, and no undermining and if you want to talk about bad board tactics and what-not, this is why we try to have a discussion with a facilitator that would not be biased and would look at where we are all coming from,” Kinton said Tuesday night. “So to come here and … hope that you’re going to correct what you feel is wrong with the board defies all of the elements of trust and respect that school boards have.”
'Parallel school board'
As the board geared up for another go at a referendum, a local advocacy group known as "STAND for Students" formed last fall to mobilize support for its passage.
At the Dec. 12 meeting, Cordray made the motion to hold a $76 million referendum, a figure that had never been publicly presented or discussed by the board until her motion that evening.
Gwozdz described the amount — and some of the projects it represents — as having "dropped from the sky." Other minority board members said the motion was hastily pushed through and lacked proper vetting. For example, neither Moss nor Campbell knew the cost of holding the referendum in a special election will cost about $100,000, significantly more than waiting until November's general election.
Emails released by the district in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show Cordray communicating with one of STAND’s co-founders, Amanda Walrad, in the hours leading up to that meeting. Cordray shared her word-for-word motion with Walrad, writing, “Please note that I have not shared this with the full Board at this time … I just wanted to give you a heads up.”
Walrad made some suggestions to Cordray, such as more oversight on referendum funding, according to the emails, which did not end up in Cordray's motion.
Cordray wrote to Kinton later that afternoon, "I changed the order of the projects based on some feedback I received from Amanda (Walrad).”
Cordray said Tuesday she alone made the motion to have a $76 million referendum.
“Nobody told me what my motion will be,” she said. “I did it. I communicated what my plans were to a few people that I wanted to know in advance.”
More recently, Gwozdz said she was shocked to find three STAND members attending a legislative program in Columbia held for school board members.
The majority of school boards do not invite community members to the event, according to Scott Price, executive director for the South Carolina School Boards Association, which sponsored the event.
No meeting minutes reflect a board vote to invite community members to the March 8 event.
On behalf of Kinton, Beaufort County School District invited all members of School Improvement Councils (SIC), according to district spokesman Jim Foster. He said he was unaware of the district issuing a mass invitation in years past, but board members may have done so on their own.
Kinton said the three STAND members were the only ones who came to the event.
Beaufort County's SIC membership numbers in the hundreds.
Call for resignations
Gwozdz also took issue with Campbell’s leadership as chairman of the board, highlighting two statements he made in recent months.
In one, he called the current board “the worst” he’s served on in his more than 20 years as a board member. At an October meeting, he alluding to unnamed critics of the district by saying, “Sometimes people get their blood pressure up staying negative, but you will die and go to hell and these kids will still be here and some of us will still be here.”
“No good leader tells the troops they are the worst ever on the battlefield,” Gwozdz said. “No good leader tells his critics, and I will paraphrase, to go to H-E double hockey sticks and then apologize for other members’ conduct, but not his own.”
Campbell pushed back, saying he would not apologize for something he did not say, but also said he “may have done some things that shouldn’t have been done.”
Gwozdz said all three board officers had abused their powers, particularly in releasing three press releases within the past two months on behalf of the entire board without their input.
Kinton pointed out that one of those releases — a statement apologizing for photos showing two students dressed as saluting Adolf Hitlers posted to Okatie Elementary School’s Facebook page — came at the request of Orischak.
“All of the officers are guilty of serious abuse of their power and their authority,” Gwozdz said. “They’ve been explicitly involved in, or have been complicit with, actions which subvert the democratic process and seriously impact the school district in a profoundly negative way.”
She ended her speech by motioning for the immediate resignation of the board officers. Orischak seconded her motion, but the vote was shoved aside when, with two items still left on the agenda, Kinton motioned to adjourn after noticing Dowling came with his own prepared remarks.
Dowling said adjourning was just a stalling tactic.
“Absolutely it’s a stall tactic,” Kinton fired back. “So we can all have the ability to prepare statements.”