The Beaufort County school board agreed Tuesday to send a letter to one of its own, asking JoAnn Orischak, a frequent critic of the superintendent, to stop acting against the board and district.
The body voted 7-3, with Orischak, Joseph Dunkle and David Striebinger opposing, to present the southern Hilton Head Island representative with the letter, penned by Board of Education chairwoman Mary Cordray in response to requests for her to “do something” about Orischak’s behavior.
Cordray did not call the letter a public reprimand and said it carried no consequences for Orischak. Nevertheless, it read like a legal rebuke, stating, “this is a formal request that you cease and desist from all actions which adversely affect the functions and operations of the District and the School Board.”
Orischak began her response by thanking district attorney Drew Davis for the letter’s professional appearance, but Cordray cut in to say Davis did not prepare the document.
“Well, hats off to you, Madam chair,” Orischak said, with thick sarcasm that she apologized for moments later.
The rest of the board’s discussion carried a similar tone.
Davis told Orischak he did not want to be defamed. Board members made faces and side comments. After the board voted to approve the letter, Orischak said simply, “I’ll consider the source,” to murmurs from other board members and the meeting’s last few attendees.
Orischak has been a vocal critic of superintendent Jeff Moss and the board since the superintendent’s nepotism scandal in September 2015, to which Moss ultimately admitted to two South Carolina ethics violations for participating in his wife’s hire to the district.
She defended her actions, including recently signing a Change.org petition asking Moss to return the $33,000 annuity contribution he is contractually entitled to this year. In the letter, Cordray writes that Orischak’s signing the petition was “of great concern” and an “outward sign of an attitude which signals a willingness to act contrary to the Democratic process when you do not get your way.”
Board policies include being obligated to refer complaints back into the school system, respecting decisions of the full board — such as the recent 7-2 vote that approved Moss’ annual evaluation — and not taking actions that undermine those decisions. Members also agree they “will not publicly express individual negative judgments about the superintendent,” its policies say.
Still, Striebinger questioned why Cordray had written a letter at all, as opposed to one of the options listed in the board’s policy manual for disciplining a fellow board member — such as removing someone from a position of leadership or issuing a formal reprimand.
Cordray responded that she was not trying to formally censure her, like the board did in June to state its disapproval of Okatie representative Paul Roth for calling Orischak a “hot chick” and making disparaging comments of other board members.
Cordray also said she did not see any point in having a private conversation with Orischak, another board-approved remedy. Davis, the attorney, would not answer questions about whether the board had authority to send Cordray’s letter.
Aside from the petition, Orischak is accused of:
▪ Informing members of the public and media about the topic of an executive session, and giving an “inaccurate” explanation that “resulted in casting the Board and staff in an improperly negative light.” This refers to her comments in an Aug. 8, 2018 Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette story about what constitutes a 2/3 vote the 11-member board. Orischak said that was the topic of the meeting, as did the board officers, Cordray, Laura Bush and Evva Anderson, in a prepared statement the next day.
▪ Disclosing matters discussed in executive session to members of the media, potentially inviting a district employee to sue her, the board or district. This refers to her comments in an Aug. 16, 2016 Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette story about the investigation of alleged wrongdoing by Hilton Head Island High School principal Amanda O’Nan.
▪ Contacting an attorney from an outside law firm and posing several questions regarding disclosure of executive session topics, without approval of the board, “for perceived personal and/or political gain.” This refers to Orischak asking an attorney for clarification about a comment they made during a presentation at an S.C. School Boards Association conference — a comment about whether a school board chair should act as the body’s spokesperson. Orischak says she offered to pay any legal fee associated with her question.
▪ Copying board members and a member of the media on at least one email in which she disclosed a statement allegedly made in executive session “in furtherance of your personal agenda to oust the Superintendent or for perceived and/or personal gain.” This refers to an alleged Sept. 19 email in which Orischak copied board members and a member of the media. Orischak says she does not know what this refers to but does not blind copy reporters on emails.
▪ Claiming to be a district employee to receive health insurance coverage, contacting a district employee directly and reprimanding a district staff member about the matter. This refers to her husband incorrectly listing Orischak’s employer as the school district, leading to a conversation with district attorney Drew Davis and chief financial and operations officer Phyllis White. Though Orischak said Tuesday the matter had been resolved, Cordray said otherwise.
On Tuesday, she told the board she does not believe its policies trump her First Amendment rights and that she will continue to speak freely to the public and the press.
“I’m an elected official and my opinion and my position I will continue to make known,” she said.