The Beaufort County school board — often criticized for its bickering, lack of transparency and perceived failure to hold the superintendent accountable — appears to have used an already-completed superintendent’s evaluation at Tuesday’s board meeting as a cover to discuss their own messy relationship in private and away from the public eye for 90 minutes.
Depending on which board member you ask, the discussion was either appropriately held in executive session and necessary to improving board relations or it did not meet the requirements of an executive session and was futile because they and their colleagues on the board will never get along.
Continuing discussion of superintendent Jeff Moss’ evaluation more than a month after the board’s vote on the matter would have been unprecedented had the board actually done that, but some board members say Tuesday’s executive session conversation was instead focused on hiring a consultant to iron out their own issues.
No action was taken coming out of the secret session.
The nine-hour board meeting, held at Hilton Head Island library, was contentious and included swearing and name-calling, according to a Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office report filed after board member Joseph Dunkle called deputies on fellow board member Cynthia Gregory-Smalls, alleging that she had threatened him.
No charges were filed in the incident.
“They’re piggybacking (onto the superintendent’s evaluation discussion) and it’s a very, very loose connection,” board member JoAnn Orischak said of the board leadership’s decision to use a closed-door session to discuss improving the board’s relationship. “The best we can muster is a facade (of getting along) in the public, but behind closed doors I would actually be concerned there could be some sort of physical altercation between members. It’s such a naive notion that we can train this board out of our current differences.”
In protest, Orischak did not participate in the closed-door meeting that was purported to be about the evaluation but attended an earlier executive session that day.
Before the board went behind closed doors, board member John Dowling said, “It’s very simple and very clear that this has nothing to do with the evaluation. This has no business being in executive session or being tied to the evaluation.”
Though Dunkle, who is the board’s parliamentarian, did not vote against the motion to go into executive session, he said in hindsight that board training was not a discussion to be had away from the public.
On hiring a consultant to solve their years-long issues, he said, “There is so much deep-rooted animosity and ill will toward one another that it can’t be fixed even if we wanted to.”
The best we can muster is a facade in the public, but behind closed doors I would actually be concerned there could be some sort of physical altercation between members. It’s such a naive notion that we can train this board out of our current differences.
Beaufort County Board of Education member JoAnn Orischak
The board’s majority, which often aligns itself with Moss, said discussing board relations with each other and with the superintendent did belong behind closed doors and that their relationships are salvageable — so long as members are open to the possibility of it.
“Having a facilitator come in and working through the issues can be helpful, but people have to be willing to make an effort,” board member Mary Cordray said. “Those that aren’t willing is a sign that they don’t want to make it better.”
Echoing Cordray, board member Evva Anderson said, “I cannot choose how many have an open mind. When we talked about possible solutions, Ms. Orischak sat out.”
Board member Geri Kinton, who has said she is not running for re-election in 2018, added that the board has to try something to get through the next year.
“I don’t think (a consultant) is a silver bullet,” Kinton said. “But is it not worth trying to save the marriage? And what do you do with the kids? We’ve got a lot of them.”
The board has considered hiring outsiders to help them in the past. In June, the board considered paying up to $35,000 to have someone help run their meetings, but voted instead to appoint Dunkle to the position of parliamentarian. Also this year, the board attempted to arrange a two-day, 10-hour board training with a consultant for $2,400, but scheduling conflicts arose. Both situations were discussed publicly and without involving outside legal counsel.
The discussion that took place Tuesday, however, was “a complicated personnel issue perfectly appropriate for executive session,” according to the board’s attorney, Ken Childs of Duff & Childs, a Columbia-based law firm that assisted in Moss’ evaluation last month.
That’s because, Childs said, immediately following the vote on Moss’ evaluation last month, Kinton made a motion that the board “continue its dialogue with Dr. Moss on how to best move the Beaufort County School District toward its full potential.”
This motion — something “the district should be working on every day,” Dunkle said at the time — is what warranted the follow-up discussion, board chairman Earl Campbell said at the meeting Tuesday.
In the meeting, Orischak pressed Campbell, along with Childs on why the topic of the evaluation was still under discussion a month later.
“I was under the impression that the evaluation had concluded and was reported to the public,” she said.
Campbell responded that the discussion was “a continuation of a discussion we had when we did the evaluation to talk about some issues.”
He would not clarify what those issues were at the meeting, nor would he clarify them in an interview Thursday.
Campbell also declined to confirm that a consultant was discussed in executive session. He said the board can be repaired by having respect for one another and doing “what is in the interest of the children and not ourselves.”
I don’t think (a consultant) is a silver bullet. But is it not worth trying to save the marriage? And what do you do with the kids? We’ve got a lot of them.
Beaufort County Board of Education member Geri Kinton
Like Childs, Campbell maintains that the discussion belonged behind closed doors.
Moss was not invited to attend the discussion that was ostensibly about his evaluation.
“I agree with Ms. Orischak that that (the superintendent’s evaluation) is a closed matter,” Moss said Wednesday. “My understanding is that (the board’s executive session) had nothing to do with my employment.”