Beaufort News

Beaufort County School District, Moss at loss to pinpoint nepotism rule change

Beaufort's CARE founder: Moss should resign; School board needs to be transparent

Richard Bisi, founder of CARE, Citizens About Responsible Care, expresses his feelings about Superintendent Jeff Moss and the members of the Beaufort County School Board during the Oct. 6, 2015, school board meeting in Beaufort.
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Richard Bisi, founder of CARE, Citizens About Responsible Care, expresses his feelings about Superintendent Jeff Moss and the members of the Beaufort County School Board during the Oct. 6, 2015, school board meeting in Beaufort.

This story was updated Aug. 9, 2016, to reflect that school board attorney Drew Davis was performing a “routine, standard notification” on Aug. 31, 2015, when he instructed the SC School Boards Association to post a revision to the district’s conflicts of interest rule. Jeff Moss did not need or acquire district or board approval to alter the rule.

More than three weeks after first being asked when Superintendent Jeff Moss changed the district's nepotism rule, clearing the way for his wife to be hired to a newly restructured , $90,000-a-year job, Moss and the Beaufort County School District are still unable to pinpoint when the change was made.

And they likely never will, they add.

The hiring, and the circumstances around it, set off a furor in the community. A week after starting her new job, Darlene Moss resigned, and the school board announced at a specially called meeting that it would revisit a nepotism policy and provide greater scrutiny over future hires by the superintendent. Then, on Tuesday, chairman Bill Evans, the board member with the most knowledge of what was happening, also resigned.

Despite those departures, Moss' attempts to restore credibility and trust with the community have been hampered by conflicting statements and ambiguity surrounding the superintendent's version of events.

Moss has stated repeatedly that the new position of director of innovation was created with no knowledge that his wife might be interested in the position, and that when he changed the nepotism rule, he had no knowledge that his wife would apply for the position.

Some details are clear:

  • The director of innovation position was posted online July 25.
  • Darlene Moss applied for the position July 28.
  • The change to the nepotism rule was not posted online until some time in September. An email shows school district attorney Drew Davis did not sign off on the change until Aug. 31. The paragraph deleted by Moss reads, "The board will not accept a recommendation for the appointment of a family member of the Superintendent for a position in the District Office, as a principal or assistant principal, or any other position directly supervised or evaluated by the Superintendent."

     
  • The school district, and Moss, have downplayed the significance of the rule change. Moss said the rule was changed only because it was unclear and did not align with the nepotism rules in previous school districts where he had worked. He and district officials also have said they do not believe the rule would have disqualified Darlene Moss, even if it hadn't been deleted, because they interpret it to mean it did not prohibit the hiring of family members as long as Moss did not directly supervise them, which he had no plans to do.

    The rule change remains a thorn for many, however.

    Board member JoAnn Orischak is upset because she said board members, when informed about Darlene Moss' application during a closed-door meeting Sept. 1, specifically asked if the hire would violate district rules.

    Jeff Moss and attorney Davis said no, according to Orischak.

    "Neither the superintendent nor the board's attorney thought it relevant to inform the board of the recent change to the administrative rule," Orischak wrote in an email expressing her displeasure.

    Moss said Monday he does not remember that question coming up at the meeting.For Joe Iaco, president of the Greater Bluffton Republican Club that started a petition to pressure Moss to step down, the timing of the change is an issue, too.

    "I think it's critically important (to know the exact date)," Iaco said. "It speaks to (Moss') intent and sheds light on his character and credibility. And I cannot believe that the school board cannot retrace that."

    Repeated efforts by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette to peg down an exact date for the rule change have been stymied by evolving answers, faulty memories and the district's own admission that it lacks a formal procedure for making rule changes.

    First asked about the rule change on Sept. 14, Moss said he could not remember what day he changed the policy. That same day, school district attorney Davis told the papers Moss could not have made the change any earlier than August. At best, that would have put the change three days after Darlene Moss applied for the position.

    Two days later, district spokesman Jim Foster sent an email to the papers, stating that Moss said he made the rule change in late July or early August but couldn't pinpoint further. The email also said that Davis claimed he had been quoted inaccurately: that he said the revision did not occur any later than August. The papers stand by the original reporting.

    No record of the actual day of the change exists, Moss said, because he made the edit by hand on a printed copy.

    "I had copies of rules printed out and put on my desk back in 2014." Moss said. "I made edits by hand and then handed them to one of three people that work for me."

    Foster said those employees also do not remember the specific edit for the nepotism rule as Moss made similar changes to more than 60 district rules. Asked where the change would have gone after that step, Moss said he did not have "that level of detail" and referred questions to Foster.

    Foster said he was unable to find any more information about the next step of the process -- other than an email that shows that Davis gave legal approval for the change and forwarded it for online posting on Aug. 31.

    "We understand that this might seem curious or even suspicious and I'm not sure at this point how to dispel that notion," Foster said. "Every indication is that the two processes, the hiring of Darlene Moss and the administrative rule change, were not related, like two trains driven by two people driving down two tracks."

    On Oct. 1, when pressed to explain an apparent conflict in Moss' statements -- that he made the change without knowledge of wife's interest in the position, and his statement that it is possible he made the rule change in "early August," after his wife had applied for the job -- a district official said Moss was no longer taking questions about the timeline of his wife's hiring. The papers have sought an electronic trail of when and how the change was made, but the district says none exists.

    Although Moss apologized to board members for the attention and questions his wife's hiring has caused, the superintendent maintains he has broken no rules or done anything unethical.

    Moss may still face questions from the State Ethics Commission where at least two complaints have been filed against him. The commission's' rules forbid public employees from using their position for the financial benefit of themselves or their family members.

    Many Beaufort County residents remain upset by the recent events, including a small group, which has organized in response to the controversy into a group they call Citizens About Responsible Education.

    "We're tired of the lame excuses about the details of how this happened," the group's founder Richard Bisi said. "We don't buy it."

    Key dates in the Jeff and Darlene Moss nepotism controversy:

    July 22: Superintendent Jeff Moss receives and approves the director of innovation job description. District Chief Instructional Services Officer Dereck Rhoads sends the job description to the district's human resources department for online posting on the district's website.

    July 25: The job is posted online.

    Sometime before July 28: Moss tells school board chairman Bill Evans that his wife, Darlene Moss, is interested in working for the school district. Evans gives the OK for her to apply to work for the district. Evans does not alert the full board of his conversation with Moss. Both men have since said they cannot remember exactly when the conversation took place, but Evans wrote it was likely July 24 or July 25 in a letter he sent to the S.C. Ethics Commission.

    July 28: Darlene Moss applies for the director of innovation position.

    Aug. 31: A five-member district panel interviews candidates for the job. School board attorney Drew Davis instructed the S.C. School Boards Association to post a revised nepotism rule online, reflecting a change Jeff Moss made eliminating a provision regarding the hiring of the superintendent's relatives. Jeff Moss did not need or acquire approval to alter the rule.

    Sept. 1: The school board discusses Darlene Moss' potential hire behind closed doors in executive session. Board member JoAnn Orischak has since said that board members at the meeting asked if the hire would violate district rules and were told no by Jeff Moss and attorney Davis.They were not told of the recent rule change, Orischak has said. Jeff Moss has said he does not recall any board members raising the question.

    Sept. 3: Darlene Moss accepts the job.

    Sept. 13: The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette report news of the newly created position and Darlene Moss' hire. Jeff Moss says he had no idea his wife would be interested in the position when he created it.

    Sept. 14: Darlene Moss begins work. The newspapers discover a change to the nepotism rule has been made by the superintendent without the full board's knowledge. Moss tells the papers he could not remember when he made the rule change but adds that it was made before he knew of his wife's interest in the position. Attorney Davis told the papers Moss did not make the rule change any earlier than August. At best, that would have put the change three days after Darlene Moss applied for the position.

    Sept 16: District spokesman Jim Foster sends an email to the papers stating Moss believes he made the change in late July or early August, but couldn't pinpoint further. The email also says Davis was misquoted and that he actually said the revision did not occur any later than August, rather than any earlier than August, as the papers reported. The papers stand by the original reporting.

    Sept. 18: The school board calls for a special meeting to be held Sept. 21 in response to public outcry.

    Sept. 19: Darlene Moss resigns, but the district makes no announcement.

    Sept. 21: After a long public comment period in which Moss and the board are hammered for Moss' actions and the board's handling of the situation by members of the public, board members go into a private session for three hours. When they leave the closed meeting, Evans announces that Darlene Moss has resigned; that the board will review and create a new nepotism policy; that the board will review future district hirings on a monthly basis; that more oversight will be given to changes to the district's other rules and that the superintendent still has the backing of the board.

    Oct. 3: Board member Orischak calls for Evans to step down from his position.

    Oct. 6: Evans resigns from the board.

    Editor Gina Smith contributed to this report. Follow reporter Erin Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_erinh.

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