A Beaufort County school board member left a closed-door meeting on Monday in protest of the conversation taking place away from the public.
JoAnn Orischak, a Hilton Head Island representative, says the executive session was used to discuss what constitutes a two-thirds vote of the 11-person body, in reference to last week’s failed attempt to include two local colleges in its proposed educational sales tax referendum.
The board was one vote short of the eight needed to ratify its money-sharing agreement with the University of South Carolina Beaufort and Technical College of the Lowcountry, a plan that’s been criticized by some members of the board and the public as being greedy with taxpayers’ money.
School board chairwoman Mary Cordray had abstained from the vote to include the colleges because she is the budget director for USCB.
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Orischak wasn’t the only school board member who disagreed with the closed meeting Monday. Two other board members, Joseph Dunkle and David Striebinger, voted to hold the discussion in a public session instead, and a handful of county residents came to the meeting armed with signs that read “Respect the Sunshine Laws,” “2/3 = 2/3” and “No More Closed Meetings.”
“It was what I thought it might be,” Orischak said after returning to the district office’s media room, where the meeting was held. “I think the conversation could have taken place in open session.”
Orischak explained that board secretary Robyn Cushingberry had already informed board members they would be discussing the two-thirds vote and possible concerns from members of the public about whether it really needed eight members to ratify the agreement.
“I just didn’t want to be party to that,” Orischak said. “Not now. The board has acted decisively. We voted.”
Cordray would not answer several of Orischak’s and Dunkle’s questions before the closed meeting, including confirming why it was being called. She would say only that the board officers — herself, Laura Bush and Evva Anderson — had called for the meeting to receive legal advice.
Cordray and Dunkle, of Port Royal, talked over each other several times and raised their voices as Dunkle tried to motion to bring the meeting before the public. At one point, Cordray banged her gavel to prompt Dunkle to stop talking and told him to “hold (his) horses.”
“The officers, sir, are trying not to violate the attorney-client privilege that has been established,” Cordray said.
Earl Campbell, the Gray’s Hill and Lobeco representative, commented that the board was “acting like children,” and that it did not matter whether the discussion took place in private or not. Though Orischak urged him to “err on the side of caution” and back her and Dunkle, he voted against holding the meeting in public.
The board didn’t take any other action Monday. After an hour-long closed-door session, the members returned and voted 5-3 to adjourn. Orischak, Dunkle, Striebinger, Geri Kinton and Campbell were in favor; Anderson, Paul Roth and Bush opposed; Cordray abstained; and Bill Payne and Michael Rivers were absent.
Cordray said she didn’t participate in the closed-door talks. However, she would not confirm that the board discussed the definition of a two-thirds vote and said she still felt it was appropriate to go into executive session to receive legal advice.
“I can’t address what board members say. They speak for themselves, but I speak for the board, and our purpose for going into executive session was to get legal advice,” she said.
Before Monday, the board had twice already received legal advice from Frannie Heizer of the McNair Law Firm about its proposed agreement with USCB and TCL, according to several board members. Heizer told them it would take eight people to ratify the money-sharing agreement, which would have directed about $28.2 million in total sales tax revenue to the two colleges.
Heizer did not respond to questions Monday about whether discussing the definition of a two-thirds vote would violate attorney-client privilege.
That agreement got only seven votes last week, meaning those colleges will not receive any revenue if voters approve the 1 percent sales tax in November.
Rebecca Bass, co-founder of Citizens Advocating Responsible Education, said it seemed to her the board called Monday’s meeting because it didn’t like Heizer’s opinion or the vote that kicked USCB and TCL out of the proposed sales tax.
“That subject doesn’t qualify for executive session treatment,” she said.
After the meeting, Beaufort representative Striebinger said he didn’t think the meeting needed to happen at all, let alone in private. The board “never got a solid answer” on what specific exemption board attorney Drew Davis cited to justify the closed session under the Freedom of Information Act, he added.
And as to whether the board is done talking about sharing tax revenue with USCB and TCL, Streibinger said he hoped so.
But, he added, “I do not underestimate the people who feel that should have been done. I do not underestimate their perseverance.”