Losing two allies and voters’ disapproval of its $217 million sales-tax referendum clearly hasn’t changed how the Beaufort County School Board’s majority operates.
When dissenters question them on their actions, ask for clarity or transparency, or seek accountability, the majority will try to silence them ... sometimes after belittling them with impatient sighs, eye rolls and, as of Tuesday night, a three-page letter alleging board policy violations.
The board’s majority voted to present a strange and unactionable cease-and-desist letter from board chairwoman Mary Cordray to member JoAnn Orischak that outlined the ways Orischak is “adversely (affecting) the functions and operations of the District and the School Board.”
She is doing this, the letter alleges, through disclosing “matters discussed by the Board in executive session to the public, including members of the press.”
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And this can result, according to the letter, in the board and staff being cast in “an improperly negative light.”
In other words, it’s Orischak’s openness with the public that is the problem, and not the board’s decision not to hold Superintendent Jeff Moss accountable for allowing his wife to be hired in a high-paying district job last year.
Wait. We’re still talking about Moss’ nepotism scandal?
Oh yes. We’re still talking about that.
But that doesn’t surprise me, and it shouldn’t surprise you. This is what happens when a board’s leadership digs in its heels, brushes off backlash and criticism, and blames it all on the media and board dissenters; when it chooses to ignore the mouths agape and heads shaking among the public; when it becomes so divided that it can’t seem to do anything without accompanying tension and pettiness.
From the looks of things, we’ll still be talking about this in 2017, too.
Without Michael Rivers, who resigned after winning a seat in the Statehouse, and with the addition of two new board members in January who are critical of the superintendent, the board will likely be split 5-5 and in gridlock until the spring.
The negative light cast on this board is not because Orischak has answered reporters’ questions, returned calls to news agencies or, in the rare instance, confirmed small details discussed in executive session, which is her right by the Freedom of Information Act — though the school district’s attorney would certainly disagree with that interpretation of the law.
The negative light is a well-earned result of the board leadership’s failure to lead.
It’s that simple.
The board’s leadership — Cordray, vice chairwoman Laura Bush and secretary Evva Anderson — allowed the board to become so tainted by the aftermath of the Moss scandal that every single action they take is poisoned by it, deservedly or not.
Every agenda item, every decision, every vote, every exchange, every special-called meeting is colored by Moss, whether by his hovering presence or his lingering past.
And yet they don’t fix it. Not only do they not fix it, they plow ahead as if not fixing it is a point of pride for them and as if more trifling and back-biting is what the doctor ordered.
This letter to Orischak is not a censure — that is, it’s not an official reprimand. It’s not one of the official ways a board can discipline a member. No, no. Cordray said she didn’t want to do that to Orischak. Instead, this is just a letter — given by the chairwoman of the board to a school board member in an official setting and in front of the public after a vote — that has a reproachful tone and a legal flair to it.
But, again, it’s not an official reprimand.
It’s a letter that scolds Orischak and tells her to stop doing what she’s doing, but there are no consequences listed if she doesn’t.
Which means the point of this letter seems to have been to embarrass, discredit and pressure Orischak to fall in line, do as we do, and zip it.
So, more time was just wasted on political nonsense.
In addition, this letter further proves to me that the board’s leadership continues to misunderstand what a working democracy looks like and what the press’s role in one is.
Democracy means discussion; it means questioning and probing. It is not always an orderly or quiet process. When dissenters speak up, the content of their message should be listened to and considered by the majority. Questions should be answered. Positions should be defensible. Walls shouldn’t immediately go up. Facial expressions shouldn’t say “there goes Orischak being Orischak.”
The letter also proves to me that the board continues to interpret basic communication with the press to be an act of aggression and betrayal on the part of its members.
Because that’s what Orischak’s relationship with the press is. It’s basic. She answers her phone. She responds to questions.
It’s what an elected official who believes in open governance does. It’s what an elected official who feels a responsibility to her constituents does.
Unless she has no respect for them.