A new revelation that a Beaufort County Board of Education member believes a dead rat left on the front doormat of her home was a threat, perhaps intended to silence her, sheds additional light on the extent of dysfunction and often petty, personal attacks that have plagued the school board for more than two years.
Bluffton board representative Christina Gwozdz filed a police report in April after finding a dead, brown rat placed precisely in the middle of her front doormat.
Gwozdz encountered the rodent three days after a conflict at a board meeting in which she was asked to serve as a witness to what became a heated conversation between a board member and a resident frequently critical of the board. The resident was the person who asked her to be the witness, she said.
The incident surfaced publicly, and only briefly, for the first time last week during a discussion on whether the board should hire a consultant to help resolve the divide among board members. Gwozdz’s statement — that she had been on the receiving end of a threat — came in response to board member Cynthia Gregory-Smalls, who said she had “not heard or seen anybody threaten anybody.”
In the wake of superintendent Jeff Moss’ 2015 ethics violations, a six-member majority on the board has typically supported Moss’ direction for the district and a five-member minority bloc that includes Gwozdz has frequently pushed back.
Gwozdz joined the board last January, is one of its most reserved members and has generally avoided controversy.
According to an April 25 police report, Gwozdz called the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office after returning home and finding the rat on her doormat.
“Christina says she believes the rat was left by someone with malicious intentions ... she does not have any enemies to name, however expressed that there is often contention between board members as well as members of the public,” according to the report.
Contacted Wednesday, Gwozdz declined to say who she thought was behind the incident, other than to say, “I think it speaks for itself.” She said she called the police because she wanted the incident documented “in case future issues arise.”
Speaking generally about her first year on the board, she said, “It’s clear some board members are not behaving in a responsible, civil manner. I don’t expect us to agree on everything, but I do expect respect and civility.”
On the report, a deputy noted the rat had an injury on one of its rear legs and wet fur surrounding its neck.
The injuries described in the report are consistent with a dog killing the rodent, according to Terry Swindler of Hillcrest Exterminating Co. He is co-owner of the Columbia-area business and has 34 years of experience in pest control.
Swindler reviewed the photo of the rat and said the rat’s bent leg could mean it was, at one time, caught in a snap trap. However, the amount of wet fur near its neck likely indicates a dog bit the rat near its neck, snapping the rat’s spine and killing it, while leaving behind a large amount of saliva.
Gwozdz told deputies she does not own any pets, according to the report.
Dogs typically do not drop their prey in an open area, such as in the middle of a doormat, Swindler said, so there is a “90 percent chance” the rat was killed by a dog and then moved onto the mat by a person.
“He looked like he was posed too good for an animal to drop him there,” Swindler said.
A pattern of threats
Gwozdz is one of at least three school board members who in 2017 reported feeling threatened to police while serving in their official elected capacity.
The rat appeared on her doorstep three days after she was asked to be a witness by board member John Dowling, who was a private citizen at the time, when he verbally confronted board member Mary Cordray at the end of an April 22 work session.
According to video of the encounter, Dowling told Cordray, among other things, to “shut up and listen” and that she was a “sick coward.” Cordray called him a “stupid piece of doo-doo.”
She filed a police report against Dowling that day. No charges were filed.
In 2017, there were at least three school board members who reported feeling threatened to police while serving in their official elected capacity.
In an interview the next day, Cordray said, “I try to behave professionally at all times because I believe it’s in the best interest of moving the district forward. I don’t believe it’s appropriate to say anything else.”
Dowling, who was elected to the board in October, pursued a restraining order against the district official who escorted him out of the building to end the incident. In June, a magistrate court judge found Dowling had no evidence of a pattern of harassment from the official. The case was dismissed.
Most recently, during a nine-hour meeting Nov. 28, board member Joseph Dunkle called the cops in response to a perceived threat by Gregory-Smalls during a heated closed-door session, according to a police report. No charges were filed.
Gregory-Smalls did not return calls for comment from The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette about the incident at the time, but said at last week’s meeting she had not “heard or seen anybody threaten anybody.”
The comment struck a chord with board member David Striebinger.
“I don’t think people have to have a long memory to know that there have been threats recently,” he said at last week’s meeting. “There’s been calls to the police. To act like that hasn’t happened is not going to help.”
He once joked to a reporter in September 2016 that the board needed a marriage counselor to move forward.
A little over a year later and the board has essentially agreed, voting 7-4 at last week’s meeting to hire a consultant for up to $8,000 to help resolve their differences. Three board members — Gwozdz, Dowling and board member JoAnn Orischak — have said they will not participate.
“I’ve seen cheating spouses get back in good graces,” said board member Evva Anderson, one of the seven who voted for the training. “I’ve seen spouses who have wiped out bank accounts get back into good graces, so I’m going to say I think everything can be fixed. Anything can be fixed.”
Security at school board meetings
Shortly after the episode between board member Mary Cordray and then-private citizen John Dowling unfolded, police presence became commonplace at board meetings.
The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office has an individual contract with Beaufort County School District for each board meeting, spokesman Capt. Bob Bromage said.
Effective Jan. 1, the district pays $48.50 per hour for security at meetings, up from $42.50 last year, according to district spokesman Jim Foster.