Education

Here's how much Beaufort Co. school board's failed 'marriage counseling' cost you

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The Beaufort County Board of Education voted in January to spend up to $8,000 in taxpayer money for a consultant to help them resolve conflicts among members, but the final tab to taxpayers grew to more than $22,000.

More than $18,000 went to an outside law firm that assisted in the hiring of a facilitator, according to a review of invoices obtained through open-records requests.

Ken Childs of Duff & Childs, a Columbia-based law firm, billed the board that amount from mid-October through the end of January — the period when the board considered and then hired what some referred to as a "marriage counselor." This was done without an explicit board vote to hire Childs for that purpose despite a board policy change last summer requiring a vote to do so.

Another $1,165 was billed for other firm employees. The law firm was paid another $3,100 in expenses and travel within that same period.

The consultant hired by the board, Wayne Worner, billed the board $3,582.99, according to a January invoice. Worner led the board through the first phase of a retreat that proposed one-on-one interviews with board members and superintendent Jeff Moss.

However, four board members — JoAnn Orsichak, Christina Gwozdz, John Dowling and Joseph Dunkle — did not participate, saying it was both a waste of taxpayer money and would not resolve the board's divide, which stems from Moss' 2015 ethics violations.

The board came to a consensus in February that moving on to the second phase — a full-day retreat — would be fruitless given the four board members' lack of participation. The effort was then abandoned.

Childs attended multiple board meetings last fall and this winter when the board discussed the hiring of a consultant. He said Wednesday he didn't do anything without the board's approval.

Asked if the advice he provided was worth $18,000, Childs said, "Of course I was disappointed in the result, but if the project had gone how I hoped it would, it would have been well worth it. But (not moving forward) was the prerogative of the board and they have other things on their agenda."

Childs said the board called him between October and January for "a few minor things but no major projects" other than the consultant.

A reading of the invoices, however, provides little clarity. A description of the work Childs peformed is redacted from each invoice.

Asked why the summary of work was blacked out, Beaufort County School District risk manager Jennifer Staton referred to a section of the state's Freedom of Information Act that allows, but does not require, a public agency to redact correspondence, work product and any other material that would violate "attorney-client relationships."

The board voted to hire Childs in September for the explicit purpose of facilitating the board's evaluation of their sole employee, superintendent Moss. Childs billed the board about $4,500 for the job, according to an October 2017 invoice.

The decision to retain him came from board member Geri Kinton immediately following the superintendent’s evaluation and did not specify the hiring of Childs. Her motion was to "continue its dialogue with Dr. Moss on how to best move the Beaufort County School District toward its full potential.”

Invoices show Childs also billed nearly $1,300 for Oct. 2 and 3 — the two days immediately following a story published in The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in which Orischak called for Moss to voluntarily resign.

Childs helped the board draft a "statement of regret" that board chairman Earl Campbell read aloud to the public apologizing for Orischak's behavior.

The amount paid to Childs falls within the board's annual legal services budget of $80,000. As of March 15, about three-fourths of the way through the fiscal year, roughly $46,000 has been spent, according to board documents.

However, the board's reliance on outside legal counsel may grow with the resignation of the district's in-house lawyer Drew Davis. He leaves May 31. As of Wednesday afternoon, that position has not been posted to the district's online job board.

Kelly Meyerhofer: 843-706-8136, @KellyMeyerhofer
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