Beaufort Co. school superintendent says he's staying. His job search says otherwise

Superintendent Jeff Moss at his 2016 evaluation by the Beaufort County school board, which has given him "satisfactory" evaluations in each of his years.
Superintendent Jeff Moss at his 2016 evaluation by the Beaufort County school board, which has given him "satisfactory" evaluations in each of his years.

When the Alabama Board of Education announced that Beaufort County schools superintendent Jeff Moss was a semifinalist in its search for the next state superintendent earlier this month, Moss reassured both his employer, the county Board of Education, and district employees of his commitment to continue at the helm of the district.

But his application for the position tells a different story, one that reveals he is looking to leave and appears to have been searching elsewhere since at least last June. The application also shows at least one board member assisted in his job search by writing a letter of recommendation on his behalf.

Under “reason for leaving" his current position, Moss' application reads: “I am under contract until 2020, but would leave earlier for the right position.”

Asked to reconcile his earlier statements with what is written in his application, Moss said Wednesday, "(It's) for the right position. It’s not any position. It would have to be a position like state superintendent, obviously. I was flattered that they contacted me on the opportunity."

His application also shows a letter of recommendation written by chief auxiliary services officer Gregory McCord for the position of Berkeley County schools superintendent, according to McCord's letter dated June 2, 2017.

Berkeley County Schools spokeswoman Katie Orvin said in an email Wednesday that the district did not have information on applicants because a "consultant firm" managed the search. Charleston-area media reports confirm Berkeley County School District hired around that time period.

When asked about the Berkeley County application, he replied that Berkeley County already has a superintendent.

He denied knowing about a letter of recommendation for the Berkeley job, saying that he has seen some letters written on his behalf, but not all letters. He said the firm may contact references to write letters.

"Folks write letters all the time, so I don't know," he said.

Asked about any other applications submitted by him or on his behalf by a search firm, Moss said, "I’m not going to discuss any potential folks that have contacted me about this issue. I don’t think it would be fair to that organization or anyone else."

(Click here to view Moss' application and letters of recommendation for state superintendent of Alabama.)

The Beaufort County school board hired Moss in 2013 using the same search firm Alabama’s Board of Education used in its search. Two years into Moss’ tenure, some in the community lost trust in him after the revelation that his wife had been hired for a high-paying, newly created position in the district office. The hire led to his wife's resignation, the resignation of the board chairman, two ethics violations for Moss and a split in the school board that oversees him.

More recently, the U.S. Attorney’s Office subpoenaed district employees for construction records related to two Bluffton schools built during Moss’ time in Beaufort County. The subpoenas also request information on Hite Associates, the architectural firm used for both projects and one that Moss had also used while he served as superintendent in North Carolina school districts. The two Bluffton schools represent the only projects Hite Associates has worked on in South Carolina, according to Jimmy Hite, president of Hite Associates.

District officials have said the district received assurance at the time that the district is not the target of investigation, but they won’t say if the district is a witness or subject in the investigation. The board also decided not to publicly release the subpoenas served to district employees.

Moss’ statement on leaving before his contract expires stands in contrast to what he told the school board after an Alabama newspaper's report about his application caught them by surprise: “I did not pursue this position. My goal is to continue working in South Carolina until I retire.”

His statement doesn’t match up with what he emailed principals April 16: “While I am honored to be considered for a state superintendent’s position, I remain committed to Beaufort County’s public schools.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Moss clarified through district spokesman Jim Foster that, to him, "committed" means he is devoted to his current position but has not eliminated the possibility of accepting another job.

Moss' application statement on leaving early also doesn’t align with what he told the public last fall through Foster for a story The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette published on Moss selling his home back in August: “I plan on living and working in Beaufort County for many years. I’ve sold my house, and I’m currently residing in the county and looking for another house.”

Moss said Wednesday he is still searching for a home in the county.

Moss’ resume cites accomplishments “in my three years here,” indicating a portion of his resume was written in 2016 — the same year he put his Beaufort home on the market.

Moss' application details

After Alabama’s announcement that Moss was a semifinalist for the position, many board members, including board member Mary Cordray, said they were unaware Moss had applied for the Alabama job and also said they did not know of other job applications he may have submitted.

On Wednesday, Cordray reiterated that she did not know he had applied for the Alabama job.

When told her May 2017 letter of recommendation had been included in the March 2018 Alabama application, Cordray said she had written two letters for Moss in the last three or four years. She said she remembers asking him at the time which job it was for, but could not recall that information Wednesday.

“I think when people apply for jobs, it's private business until it gets to the level where they're seriously considered for the job or the level where it’s made public,” she said.

She also said she had not informed other board members that Moss, the board's sole employee, was applying for other positions. On Wednesday, she said she didn’t see the need to do so because she did not give her recommendation on behalf of the board, but as an individual.

"I have been supportive of the superintendent’s efforts to seek other opportunities and I encourage those efforts," she said. "That's not new."

Of the five letters of recommendation submitted in Moss’ application, Cordray’s was the only to touch on what has become his Achilles heel in Beaufort County: his 2015 ethics violations. In her two-page letter, she describes the aftermath of Moss' wife's hiring.

“Two of eleven board members did not agree with the majority and turned to the (news)paper to continue a constant bashing of the Board and the Superintendent over the next 18 months,” she wrote. “... They don’t like the Board process because they only have one vote and a majority of the Board does not support their position so they run to the local paper. The local paper is happy to print these kinds of stories because they sell.”

(Click here to view Moss' application and letters of recommendation for state superintendent of Alabama.)

Gary Ray, chairman of the search firm Ray and Associates that assisted the Alabama Board of Education in its search, warned Alabama board members of negative stories about semifinalists published online, according to two reporters in Alabama.

Three messages seeking comment, left with a firm secretary over the past three weeks, had not been returned as of Wednesday.

The Alabama board selected four candidates April 13 to interview April 20. They chose Moss as the alternate in case one of the four withdrew before the interview.

While Moss would not say last week whether or not he planned to interview, people at the event said he did not attend. The board ultimately chose a finalist with longtime Alabama ties.

Letters of recommendation and Moss’ resume shine a light on how he would get a job despite his turbulent time in Beaufort County.

He cites increasing graduation rates from 78 percent in 2013 to 82 percent in 2016, improving the district’s state ranking from 42 to 18, establishing a student scholarship fund, expanding career and technical education opportunities and creating a school choice program among his list of accomplishments in Beaufort County.

Moss also took at least partial credit for successful bond referendums when he was superintendent of three North Carolina school districts, according to his resume. He does not, however, take similar ownership of two school bond referendums in Beaufort County, both of which failed.

Seventy-two percent of voters Saturday rejected a $76 million referendum, one of the largest public denials in the county's history of school referendums. In 2016, 55 percent of voters rejected a $217 million referendum.

“I cannot support a referendum, so to state I am responsible for something I cannot speak to is disingenuous,” he wrote in a Tuesday evening email.

Three of his five letters of recommendation were written in June 2017 by employees that directly report to him — McCord, chief instructional services officer Dereck Rhoads and Beaufort High School principal Bonnie Almond. A fourth was written by former vice-chairman of the Hilton Head Island Economic Development Corporation Carlton Dallas.

Those letters described Moss as “exhibit(ing) self-control like no other leader I have seen,” “a visionary idea generator," “able to see the forest and the trees” and “exemplifies all the qualities of excellence to an extraordinary degree.”

Kelly Meyerhofer: 843-706-8136, @KellyMeyerhofer