Still unsure of where their children will be attending school next year, parents arrived at Monday night’s town hall meeting ready to question Bluffton school board members about redistricting and a likely referendum to alleviate crowded classrooms.
The initial focus of the meeting, however, became the latest in a string of years-long distractions for the Beaufort County Board of Education, which, among other issues, is currently tasked with addressing Bluffton’s booming student enrollment.
Recently elected Bluffton representative John Dowling, left abruptly shortly after the town hall began, much to the disappointment of parents who wanted to question the Sun City Hilton Head and Okatie representative on his views, which so far stand in stark contrast to their own.
“How can you leave if you represent Bluffton?” a parent asked him shortly before he left.
“I am very interested in what you have to say,” Dowling told parents. “But I cannot stand here and break the law.”
Board chairman Earl Campbell and board member Cynthia Gregory-Smalls, both of whom represent north of the Broad River districts, unexpectedly showed up at Bluffton High School to listen to the town hall. Neither were listed as board members who would attend, according to the district’s news release sent last week. Their presence brought the number of board members at the town hall from five to seven.
State law explicitly states that meetings of a public body, such as a school board, occur when a simple majority of its members convene. In the case of the Beaufort County Board of Education, whenever six or more of its 11 board members convene, that constitutes a public meeting that requires public notification of its agenda.
No agenda was posted — a direct violation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act, Dowling argued.
Gregory-Smalls and Campbell frequently vote with the majority bloc of the board, which typically aligns itself with superintendent Jeff Moss. Their attendance, Dowling said, made him feel compelled to leave.
Dowling said he wouldn’t have come to the town hall at all if he wasn’t interested in hearing citizens’ concerns. He added Thursday that he has already scheduled a town hall for later this month.
“I am not trying to be divisive on the board,” he said. “I wanted to hear what (the public) had to say. I was prevented by the law. I didn’t prevent myself.”
After Dowling’s departure, some Bluffton parents said he had “preconceived notions,” an “old guard mentality” and a “disgusting” social media presence, all comments that went unanswered in his absence.
“We are parents and we’re going to hold you to task,” another parent told Dowling. “You can stay as a guest or you can choose to represent.”
Three of the five Bluffton board members disputed Dowling’s interpretation of the law. Board member Evva Anderson chalked it up to a “technicality.” Board member Mary Cordray said issue was “a matter of opinion.” Board vice-chairwoman Geri Kinton told parents it was Dowling’s “interpretation of the law.”
Kinton, who has served on the board for several years, pointed to other town halls and events in which many board members attend and never has the legality of those meetings been raised.
“This happens all the time,” she said Wednesday. “Parents were pleading (Dowling) stay. I can see why they were upset.”
Christina Gwozdz, the only other minority board member in attendance, stayed for the meeting but did weigh in on the legality of it.
A second town hall held Tuesday at Hilton Head Middle School for the same purpose had just two board members in attendance, so it was not an official meeting, yet an agenda was posted on a school door.
Cordray said the school district’s attorney, Drew Davis, had “no issue” with the meeting.
District spokesman Jim Foster said Davis would not publicly discuss advice he gives the board.
The board’s outside legal counsel, Ken Childs, did not see the town hall as an illegal meeting.
“It’s sort of like ‘no harm, no foul,’” Childs said. “To me, as long as they announce that it’s going to occur publicly, I don’t think it’s any problem.”
Bill Rogers, who is familiar with the state’s Freedom of Information Act through his work as executive director of the S.C. Press Association, a group The Island Packet belongs to, disagrees.
“The ones that showed up were irresponsible in doing so,” he said. “It’s an illegal meeting and they should have known better than to show up.”
Campbell said Tuesday that his presence did not establish a quorum nor did his attendance “force” Dowling to leave.
“(Dowling) left because he wanted to leave,” he said. “Nobody forced him to leave.”
Campbell said he chose to attend because he had received emails from Bluffton parents and wanted to hear from them.
Campbell stood up at the beginning of the town hall to say he wouldn’t participate, a statement that he said did not constitute participation in itself. Gregory-Smalls made one statement toward the end of the nearly three-hour long town hall.
Dowling requested the lingering questions about this episode be put on the next meeting agenda, a request objected by Kinton, according to an email she sent to him late Monday evening.
“We are in compliance,” she wrote. “It’s unfortunate that you still interpret meetings/gatherings such as tonight’s as illegal; you will miss a lot of important dialogue if you continue to leave and not participate.”
Parents, here’s your next town hall meeting
Beaufort County Board of Education District 6 representative John Dowling will host a town hall meeting 6:30 p.m. Nov. 30 at the Mill Creek Clubhouse, 140 Colvin Drive.
Any topic related to the Beaufort County School District is up for discussion.