Some Beaufort County school board members say they were pressured Tuesday night to vote immediately on school superintendent Jeff Moss’ offer to resign and that they were met with resistance by their own attorney, as well as fellow board members, when they asked to look over the proposed terms of Moss' severance package, which will exceed a quarter of a million dollars.
Four members — David Striebinger, Christina Gwozdz, John Dowling and JoAnn Orischak — all of whom are on the board’s minority bloc, said they voted against Moss' exit agreement because, although they support Moss’ departure, they wanted 48 hours to review the proposed exit package, which they said was sprung on them by the board's officers.
Instead, they said they were given minutes to look over the proposal because the board’s officers were worried the four would leak the terms of the agreement to the public, according to multiple board members.
All four of those who voted against accepting Moss' offer have pushed for new district leadership, some since 2015, when details of Moss' involvement in the hiring of his wife for a high-paying, newly created district office job became public. Citizen outcry followed, and a petition calling for Moss' resignation circulated, but the majority of board members have steadfastly supported him.
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"I don’t want Jeff to leave," board vice-chairwoman Geri Kinton said Wednesday. "That’s not my first choice. It appears to be one of the only ways to bring attention back to what we need to be focusing on rather than on something that happened three years ago."
Moss joined the district in 2013 and his initial contract spanned through June 30, 2018. However, in 2014, just over a year into Moss' tenure, the board extended it through June 30, 2020.
Had Moss' employment with the board continued through 2020, the November 2018 election would have proved a critical juncture in the board's trajectory with Moss — five of the seven members up for election have generally supported Moss.
The board has been plagued by in-fighting since Moss' nepotism scandal and his state ethics violations. The minority bloc — which oftentimes includes board member Joseph Dunkle — say they are often silenced, kept in the dark and criticized for representing the constituents that elected them. The board’s majority members — Kinton, chairman Earl Campbell, secretary Bill Payne and board members Mary Cordray, Evva Anderson and Cynthia Gregory-Smalls — say the minority does not act in the interest of the entire district, runs to the press with their problems, interrogates senior staff and is often unwilling to accept losses.
On Wednesday, Kinton and Cordray disputed the minority members' characterization of Tuesday's closed-door meeting and said the matter was handled appropriately.
Both said the officers alone worked with the board's attorney, Ken Childs of Columbia-based law firm Duff & Childs, to negotiate a mutual separation agreement with Moss and his attorney.
Gwozdz, Striebinger, Dowling and Dunkle described Tuesday's closed-door discussion on the superintendent's contract as one in which most of the time was spent pressing the officers and Childs for the written separation agreement.
"Taxpayers are funding this severance package and it's my responsibility as a board member to have read this before voting on it," Gwozdz said Wednesday, adding that members had about 10 minutes to read the document and ask questions after it was reluctantly provided to them.
Striebinger said he was not able to finish reading through the document in its entirety during that time.
Accounts differ among board members on how many pages the agreement is with Cordray remembering the document as being two to three pages and Striebinger and Dunkle estimating the agreement was between four and six pages.
"It’s a bunch of one or two sentence paragraphs with a lot of space," Kinton said of the document. "It’s not a whole lot to digest."
Striebinger said he had no objection to the amount Moss is receiving in the exit package, but he took issue with how it was presented.
"You cannot tell somebody to approve a $280,000 agreement without seeing it," he said, "What I objected to was (that) I was told I couldn’t see the agreement."
The board officers hesitated to pass out copies of the agreement because they feared it would be passed along to the press, multiple board members said.
"There’s not trust among board members that (the agreement) would be kept confidential and not shared with you (the media) before it was executed," said Cordray, who is not a board officer.
Childs, the board’s attorney, echoed this, saying, "You don’t negotiate personnel matters through the media."
Striebinger and others pushed to delay a vote until Thursday when a special-called meeting was already scheduled.
Cordray said voting on the same night as the proposal was introduced did not strike her as hasty because the terms of the agreement were "simple and straightforward."
The full details of the agreement have not yet been released to the public.
"They wanted to wait two days," Kinton said of the four board members wanting to delay the vote. "My thought is why? They wanted Jeff Moss gone for two years. I'm not sure why they needed two days to think about it."
She said there was no cutoff in the time allowed for reading the agreement and that the board could have stayed in executive session "for hours" to provide members with however much time they needed to digest the separation agreement.
Childs also said board members had as much time as they wanted to read the agreement and it was up to them when the decision was made.
But he also said, "If we hadn’t gone ahead with something that's been on the table, it would’ve added to the complexity," potentially costing more money in negotiations.
The four board members, as well as Dunkle, who voted in favor of the resignation, say the message from the board's majority and attorney Tuesday night was clear.
"It was 'we need to go out and vote on it now,’” Dunkle said.
Exit package details
According to a district news release, Moss’ exit package includes one year’s salary, which is $220,000. The agreement also includes a $44,000 contribution to the retirement fund of his choice.
The release called this annuity contribution “contractually earned,” but in the past, the board has voted during his annual evaluation on whether or not his performance was satisfactory to justify the district’s contribution.
Per the terms of Moss' contract, he is entitled to four weeks of vacation each year. It’s unclear how much unused vacation and sick leave he has accumulated and will be paid. While his total exit package will top $264,000, the terms of the agreement will not be made public until next week, Childs said.
The board will hold a meeting on the process for hiring an interim superintendent 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the district's headquarters, 2900 Mink Point Blvd.