Beaufort News

'Feed them a lot of manure': Past Beaufort County school board drama is instructive

This story was updated Oct. 12, 2015, to correct the school of former principal Phillip Shaw.

School boards often struggle to find the power-structure sweet spot -- that elusive place where their need to provide oversight and be accountable to taxpayers meshes perfectly with a superintendent's need to fulfill a strategic vision free of outside meddling.

Just ask the Beaufort County school board, which has undergone two major overhauls and several smaller tweaks in the past 15 years alone in search of the right balance.

The recent controversy over the district's hiring of Superintendent Jeff Moss' wife to a newly restructured, highly paid job that he approved after single-handedly changing a nepotism rule left many in the community wondering how something like this could happen. How did the superintendent get so much power that he could change a rule -- a rule put into place to avoid controversies just like this one -- without alerting his bosses on the school board?The answer is a complicated one, as history shows.

THE GAITHER ERA

Long-time school board member Earl Campbell remembers what it was like in 2000. He has a simple, descriptive word for it: Chaos.

"You can't have school board members going in and telling the principals of schools what to do," said Campbell, who has been on the board for the past 25 years. "You can't run it that way."

Campbell and Laura Bush, who also was on the board at the time, describe a school board in which some members ran amok.

Members were involving themselves in everything from choosing schools' flooring materials and paint colors to suggesting teachers for hire, Bush recalled. The board even tried to get involved in the criminal justice system, voting to recommend that the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office allow a former principal to participate in pre-trial intervention rather than stand trial on charges of intimidating a student and obstructing justice.

A year later, the meddling led the board to make a big change, voting to limit its role by switching to a management system called policy governance.

It was a needed change, according to Campbell, who was board chairman at the time. He thought a broader focus on goal-setting and academic outcomes would prevent micro-managing, which he and others were beginning to recognize as a weakness of the board.

Campbell felt a switch to policy governance would hold the administration accountable and the board, too, forcing members to grade themselves and discuss how well they stayed on track at each meeting. Under the board's new plan, each member filled out a sort of report card after each meeting, forming a record of how compliant they thought the school board was in areas such as delegating to the superintendent and monitoring his performance.

But it was not until a few months later that board members grasped the extent of the power they had forefeited. That's when they learned Superintendent Herman Gaither had not sought their approval on a $1.7 million construction contract until about three weeks after work began.

Then-district attorney Ken Childs told The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette that the district would have only waited for board approval to break ground "if a matter was highly controversial." But short of that, the superintendent could make the call.

"Probably, it's not the best way to do things," then-member Al Stern told the newspapers.

The same issue played out over the next five years as the district embarked on a $120 million building program that included the creation of another northern-Beaufort County High School among four other new schools and offices and seven renovation projects.

After five years -- and Gaither's exit in 2005 -- the district had spent $2.2 million toward the new high school, but it was no closer to completion. It had also overpaid contractors on other projects and had failed to build a new district office.

Several former board members blamed the board's reliance on the superintendent, Gaither, for the flawed construction results.

"We believed everything the superintendent said," then-board member Pam Edwards said. "We counted on him to have the skill sets to lead the district to success."'

Attempts to reach Gaither last week were unsuccessful.

In 2006 -- after just five years under policy governance -- the board abandoned its management style and decided to try something else.

THE TRUESDALE ERA

When the district's new superintendent, Valerie Truesdale, began meeting each of the 11 board members in 2007, she discovered that each had "a little different view on how we were doing governance," she said that year.

And some of the problems that predated policy governance had never really fallen away, such as board members giving principals unsolicited advice about hirings, said Campbell and then-board chairman Fred Washington. Budget debates had also eroded the board's relationship with Beaufort County Council.

"The board was just divided and dysfunctional," Washington said.

Truesdale hired a consultant from Horry County to teach members a variation on their old method called strategic governance. Today, the Beaufort County and Horry County school boards are the only ones in South Carolina that use strategic governance. Most follow traditional governance, in which the board monitors and instructs management, or policy governance, according to the S.C. School Boards Association.

Strategic governance varies only slightly from policy governance in that the board sets achievement goals for students that mirror the goals in the district's state-required strategic plan. The board also agreed to use less confusing language than it did under policy governance.

While some school board members were uneasy with the reorganization, they eventually embraced the change with one goal in mind -- avoiding their past difficulties.

"Have you ever heard of the mushroom approach?" former board member Jim Bequette said in 2007, the year after he was elected. "That's how (the district administration) used to treat the school board -- feed them a lot of manure and keep them in the dark."

Many members considered Truesdale's method a success. She presented the board with more information, and the board was vocal in return, even when it did not agree with her, Bequette recently said. Members honed their communication at board retreats, which Washington implemented as a step toward committees.

The district also updated its nepotism rules under Truesdale, adding stricter language such as limitations on the hiring of superintendents' relatives -- the provision Jeff Moss recently eliminated.

Truesdale recommended the board form a committee on the subject before she approved the regulation. Reached this and last week, Truesdale and other former board members declined to comment or said they could not remember exactly how the rule was meant to be interpreted.

Washington's memory was more clear.

"As I recall, one of things we always wanted to do was not have the appearance of any impropriety. And anything that appeared that way, in my opinion, (would have) come before the full board for consideration before any action (was) taken," Washington said. "The intent was to try to avoid the situation that exists now."

Ultimately, it wasn't the board's relationship or communication with Truesdale that caused problems. It was the problems that occurred under Truesdale's leadership, and the perception that a weak board simply went along with what she wanted to do.

For example, the board agreed to discontinue several honors middle school courses, including physical science and English writing, despite parents' objections.

Truesdale also oversaw the resignation of Dan Durbin, a Beaufort High School principal who admitted to changing more than 200 grades over two years. Current board member JoAnn Orischak, who was elected in 2012 just after Truesdale resigned, said parents were concerned with the handling of the situation, noting Burbin's popularity and conflicting stories from teachers."There was just a lot of question marks surrounding how (grade changes were) done," Orischak said. "I just don't think we ever heard the full story." And shortly after Truesdale left, H.E. McCracken Middle School principal Phillip Shaw was placed on paid leave and eventually fired as the district investigated the school's finances.

There was a community sense that a stronger board would have kept Truesdale straight, or -- once she announced her resignation -- would have chosen a better leader to follow her.

"There were a lot of trust issues," Orischak said. "I think it's incumbent upon the board to ask tough questions and I don't know if they were always asked of previous superintendents."

She added that board members still often have reservations about second-guessing the most senior member of the school district.

"Board members are reluctant, of course, to micromanage the superintendent," she said. "We don't want to overstep our bounds in that regard. But if there's ever a breach of trust, if there's ever an instance that would break that confidence, then the board, I think, has to be a bit more watchful."

MORE CHANGES COME

Public unhappiness led to an overhaul of the board. Orischak was one of five new members elected in 2012. Longtime educator Bill Evans was named chairman and swiftly voted to adopt a new committee structure that he recommended.

The subgroups seemed to avoid the pitfalls of old committees, in which chairmen would sometimes bypass the full board, instead giving directions directly to staff on personnel hiring, contracts and more, according to Bush.

But it was far from perfect. And even today, the board sometimes still involves itself in school-level decisions. Just this week, the board approved the concept of a new school mascot and logo -- after discussions dragged on for months -- despite objections from some members to the board's involvement at all.

"I just couldn't believe how complicated a simple thing became," said Washington. "And I said to someone, 'Well I apologize if I ever did something like that while I was on the board.'"

The strategic governance structure has also kept board members in the same precarious situation of relying heavily on the superintendent to decide what information is shared with them -- just as it was under Truesdale and Gaither.

And it turned out last month that Moss, superintendent since 2013, had not fully shared information regarding his wife's hire, leading to community outrage and, in turn, castigation of Moss and the board.

In August, Moss told only Evans, not the full board, of his wife's interest in applying for the director of innovation job. He also did not tell the district he had eliminated a district nepotism rule that prohibited relatives of the superintendent from working in the district office.

The public piled its anger on the board at a specially-called meeting Sept. 21 and again at its Oct. 6 meeting, at which vice-chairwoman Mary Cordray announced Evans' resignation.

"I think the situation that we've been put in, it's very serious," said longtime board member Michael Rivers. "Unless you are able to verify what you're being told (by the superintendent), there's really no checks and balances."

The board also remains divided between those who still see a problem with the superintendent/board relationshp and those who do not or refuse to say.

Board member Paul Roth and several others have pointed to Moss' successes in the district, from rising graduation rates and AP scores to reinstating middle school honors courses and expanding career and technology education.

"This business of crawling around and apologizing, it's off the main game," Roth said. "The main game is big, really big, and really hard, and if we don't stand up for it, we don't back our superintendent, he can't do his job. If we don't back him 100 percent, he'll probably go."

Orishack disagreed. She said the board has become too comfortable with Moss because he's performed well, granting him more leeway when it should have remembered its responsibilities.

"I think the board always has to be watchful that they maintain their place, which is to oversee the superintendent and not the other way around," she said.

In the coming weeks, the board will again try to find that power-structure sweet spot. Members recently voted to sign off on all hirings every month, to require the superintendent to seek board input on rule revisions and to remove regulations on nepotism from the superintendent's perview.

"I think these are some of the steps necessary to regain the public's faith and confidence," said Joseph Dunkle, a school board member.

Some members are also working toward election reform, such as adding term limits. While the board also voted to eliminate petition requirements, state lawmakers have yet to take the issue up, according to state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.

It's yet to be seen if the changes will be the fix that board members seek.

Rivers is doubtful. He believes a bigger shift in attitude is needed.

"Sadly, I think (change) is only going to come from outside pressure," he said. Until then, "the people are the stockholders, and the stock is dropping -- is plummeting -- when it comes to the Beaufort County School District and Dr. Moss."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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