“One decision... I wish I could take back”: Beaufort County superintendent looks back
Editors note: information has been added to clarify why four board members voted against the motion to accept Moss’ resignation on May 15, 2018.
When the Beaufort County Board of Education received school superintendent Jeff Moss’ resignation on May 15, there were no grand speeches, no immediate emotional responses and no disputes over whether Moss should go.
Otherwise, this board — whose sole employee is Moss — had found itself in an unfamiliar place: on the same page.
Board members had known that a mutual agreement on Moss’ early departure, which takes effect Aug. 1, was coming eventually.
And although the public wouldn’t hear about his resignation until May, Moss’ separation from the district had been a topic of discussion since last October during the superintendent’s annual evaluation.
Nearly three years after the board was first criticized by the public for its decision not to take action against Moss after ethics violations, the board members who had stuck by him were now changing their minds.
Moss’ nepotism scandal in 2015 — and the board’s subsequent handling of it — had become an Achilles heel for the superintendent, the board and Beaufort County School District, which is the county’s largest employer.
It hung over nearly every school board meeting and decision the board made.
It clouded people’s perception of whether Moss and the board were acting in the public’s best interest. It contributed to the formation of special interest groups in the community and created deeper factions on the board, splitting them into a majority who supported Moss and a minority who did not.
As the years dragged on, the fallout from Moss’ 2015 ethics violations continued to mount. Members of the board who once thought the district, the board and the county as a whole should and could move past the incident eventually accepted that it wasn’t going away — that the scandal and Moss were inextricable.
When it came time to vote on Moss’ exit deal, those majority members who had spent the past three years publicly defending Moss voted to approve his exit as a necessary step to move the district forward and rebuild trust in the community.
What they didn’t expect was that four of the five members who had advocated for Moss’ departure — JoAnn Orischak, David Striebinger, John Dowling and Christina Gwozdz — would vote against the deal.
As she read the vote aloud on May 15, board secretary Geri Kinton, a member of the majority and vice chair of the board, was emotional — but not because of Moss’ resignation, she later said.
“After more than two years of listening to people say ‘He’s got to go,’ we finally had come to a point to have him leaving. So to have those same people vote ‘no’ was hard for me to read,” she said.
The four board members who had voted against the deal say they did so because the weren’t given enough time to review the contract or give any input into the specific terms — not because they didn’t agree he had to go.
Though the board had just agreed to part with Moss, it was clear to some that the hard feelings and tensions that had developed during his tenure might not be leaving with him.
A man touted for his ‘breadth of knowledge in education’
Moss arrived in Beaufort County with more than 30 years of experience as a teacher, administrator and superintendent.
In his previous role as superintendent of the 9,850-student Lee County Schools in Sanford, N.C., on-time graduation rate increased substantially and the dropout rate fell, particular among minority and economically disadvantaged students, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
In 2013, when Moss was selected from 11 candidates to serve as superintendent of Beaufort County schools, a 22,000-student system, all indications pointed toward his ability to bring similar results to Beaufort County.
And in many ways he did.
During Moss’ five-year tenure at the Beaufort County School District, he expanded pre-kindergarten options, started a scholarship program with the Technical College of the Lowcountry and launched the district’s school choice program.
High school graduation rates increased nearly six percentage points from 2014 to 2017 and dropout rates declined by .6 percentage points during that time.
The number of schools that offer career and technical education courses, also known as CATE, rose, and the board began a five-year, phased-in cost-of-living supplement to recruit and retain teachers.
“I think what we should be most proud of is how far we’ve come academically with students,” Moss said in a recent interview.
Among his supporters, he’s been touted for his “breadth of knowledge in education,” his “appreciation for teachers’ and principals’ opinions” and his “proficient and dedicated” style of leadership.
“He was willing to take risks and go against the grain to put things in place that other people might not have because it was too controversial or too difficult to get done,” Kinton said, pointing to his initiatives to change school start times and implement the district’s school choice program.
Kathy Corley, principal at Red Cedar Elementary in Bluffton, has worked in the Beaufort County School District since 1999. She said Moss was “among the brightest” superintendents she has worked with.
“I think we will reap the benefits of some things he put in place for a long time as we go down the road, because they are that long lasting,” Corley said.
Still, Corley said she could see why some members of the public doubted Moss after the hiring of his wife in 2015.
“I can understand that if all (some members of the public) know about the man is that, then it would be a tough sell for some folks to feel like he has everyone’s best interest at heart,” she said.
“But I know different. He does have the best interests of the students and taxpayers of Beaufort County at heart.”
In spite of his successes, members of the board and the public found fault with Moss, and distrust in him grew as the years went on.
“I think when he came here he had the potential to do great things, but he made some poor decisions,” said board member Christina Gwozdz.
David Striebinger, a board member since 2016, said in his campaign that he believed the district could not move forward with Moss in charge.
He served as board secretary from July 2017 through this past May. As a board officer, he saw Moss from a new vantage point.
“I don’t think he’s as bad as people thought,” he said in a recent interview, “but I don’t think he was as good as he thought.”
Striebinger said Moss was “creative,” but not “data driven.”
“He wants to put a spin on things too often,” Striebinger said. “... If you’re the CEO, you’ve got to be data driven.”
Frustrated by what she felt was “a pattern of poor behavior from Moss,” board member JoAnn Orischak decided to make her feelings about Moss public last fall. In October 2017, she issued a statement and called on Moss to voluntarily resign at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
“It’s naive to think the nepotism debacle was the sole event that caused me to question his leadership and reliability,” she said. “There were several instances along the way, including him giving us partial information and (his) omission of information.”
‘What really caused Moss to lose the public’s trust’
Controversy first arose for Moss in July 2015, when his wife applied to be the district’s director of innovation. The position, with an annual salary of about $90,000, had been created earlier that month after Moss asked his chief instructional services officer, Dereck Rhoads, to rework an opening into a new role.
On Aug. 31, 2015, a five-member district panel interviewed Darlene Moss as well as the other remaining finalist, an assistant principal in the district.
The same day, then-school board attorney Drew Davis instructed the S.C. School Boards Association to post a revision to the district’s conflicts of interest rule, which eliminated a provision regarding the hiring of superintendents’ relatives.
Jeff Moss had recently changed the policy.
On Sept. 1 of that year, the school board discussed Darlene Moss’ potential hire in executive session, behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny.
Board members who were in the room at the time said Moss had asked the board if anybody had an issue with the hiring. A couple of questions were asked, including who would supervise her and whether it would violate any district rules, but no objections were made.
Darlene Moss’ hiring was never officially voted on in open session, where the public would have had an opportunity to weigh in.
Two days after the board’s executive session, Moss’ wife was chosen as the most qualified candidate, and subsequently, hired.
Shortly after her hiring was announced, public outcry ensued and she stepped down within days.
In a recent interview, Orischak said her opinion of the hire changed when she read a report in The Island Packet shortly after that had compared an old copy of the school’s nepotism policy to the current nepotism policy. This is when she discovered “that rules had been bent and changed to make it all possible.”
“That’s essentially when I felt an initial betrayal,” Orischak said. “... I began to question how much information was given to the board on any particular matter and how much was being kept from us.”
Moss, who at the time offered conflicting accounts about what led to his wife’s hiring and a vague timeline on when the policy change was made, has always denied knowing that his wife would be interested in the position when he created it.
Davis and district spokesman Jim Foster have also maintained that the change to the nepotism rule had no bearing on Darlene Moss’ hire. And some board members in the majority bloc said they did not think the revision to the rule affected Moss’ ability to hire his wife.
Though he apologized for his conduct, Moss has never taken full responsibility for his wife’s hiring and continues to assign a significant amount of blame to the board for allowing it to happen.
“My actions were the exact directives of the board, so there was never any misunderstanding or miscommunication on my part,” Moss said in a recent interview.
He cited politics as a reason that some board members later criticized him for the hiring.
“I think what happens, unfortunately, is when that action becomes public and you have some pushback from different communities, then sometimes political leaders decide to take a different route.”
Board member Joseph Dunkle said he disagreed with Moss on that premise.
“We do represent our constituents, so I don’t see anything wrong with that,” he said.
Still, like Orischak, Dunkle said what really caused him to later find fault in the hiring of Moss’ wife was discovering that information from district administrators to the board had been omitted.
“In executive session it was asked if it would violate any district rules and they said ‘No,’” he said of Moss and Davis. “The answer should have been ‘No, because we changed the rule last week.’”
In August 2016, nearly a year after Moss’ wife was hired and after a state ethics commission investigation, Moss admitted to two ethics violations as a result of his involvement in the hiring of his wife and was fined.
At that time, the board, which had previously maintained it was waiting on the results of the investigation before deciding whether to sanction Moss, again opted not to take any action against him.
The ethics commission had found that Moss’ violations were not because Darlene Moss had been hired or that the district’s nepotism rule had been changed, but because the superintendent, in the words of the ruling, “unknowingly” broke state ethics laws in signing his wife’s consulting contract and presenting her as a job candidate to the school board.
While members of the board and public disagree on the level of Moss’ wrongdoing, even his supporters agree he could have handled the situation differently.
Kinton and board member Bill Payne, who is now board secretary, both said Moss could have done a better job communicating with the public during the process.
“That’s not to say he didn’t fuel the fire,” Kinton said of the criticism Moss received in the aftermath. “You asked what his strengths were, well one of his weaknesses was how to communicate.”
Payne also acknowledged the board’s role in hurting the public’s perception of the matter.
“Looking back as a board of education member, I think the board and superintendent (Moss) could have done things differently as far as public relations,” Payne said.
Striebinger said Moss “got a confrontational attitude” when the situation unraveled.
“That was the worst possible thing he could do,” he said.
Although the events happened more than two years ago, they were a near constant dark cloud over Moss’ reputation.
“I really think the ethics violations are what caused Moss to lose the public’s trust,” said Gwozdz, who ran in 2016 to bring “transparency and integrity” back to the board. “And I think from then forward he could not be a good leader for the Beaufort County School District.”
Some defenders of Moss, including Moss himself, maintain that, ultimately, he was treated unfairly when it comes to the lingering effects of the nepotism scandal.
“I think at any time individuals or organizations — whether it’s the newspaper or an individual — will believe what they believe to fit their own narrative,” Moss said in a recent interview. “If your narrative is to cast doubt on a school district, then you want to believe and shout whatever you want to shout for that narrative.
“... It does not make that narrative true.”
Bill Evans was chairman of the board when Darlene Moss was hired and has been a vocal supporter of Jeff Moss. It was Evans who had the most knowledge of any board member at the time about the circumstances surrounding Darlene Moss’ hiring.
He resigned soon after the backlash started.
“I thought (my resignation) might calm things down a bit, but I think it just gave them red meat,” Evans said in a recent interview. “(Public outcry over the nepotism scandal) didn’t go away. It just snowballed.”
Kinton believes that Moss “got a raw deal,” but also said the real damage went beyond just the reputations of the superintendent and individual board members.
“It really did hurt our entire community because the Beaufort County School District is really not as bad as it appears when you just do a quick Google search.”
An exit months in the making
The first sign of Moss’ mutual agreement to leave the district can be traced to a special called board meeting on Oct. 9, 2017 when the board discussed Moss’ annual evaluation, multiple board members have confirmed.
Board member Mary Cordray — former chairwoman and a supporter of Moss — said recently she was the one who brought up the prospect of Moss’ departure during executive session that evening.
At the end of the meeting, 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.”
Both Cordray and Kinton have said they did not discuss the possibility of an exit plan with Moss prior to this night.
Ken Childs, of Columbia-based law firm Duff & Childs, served as the board’s attorney during the annual evaluation process and went on to represent the board for the mutual agreement to separate.
“Interestingly, even among the six board members who said his job had been better than satisfactory, one or two of them had questions about how effective the district would be given the division on the board,” Childs said of the October executive session.
On Dec. 12, 2017, the board called a second executive session at the end of their meeting to discuss what a mutual agreement with Moss might entail, multiple board members have confirmed.
But no motions were made coming out of it.
For the next six months, most board members said, they heard nothing about the potential separation agreement.
“Dead silence,” Gwozdz said of the communication coming from the board’s officers.
Childs said “very little happened” regarding the mutual agreement between December and April because there was “a lot of other things going on with the board and the district.”
And there was.
During that time, the board hired a facilitator to help improve members’ relationships with each other and then abandoned the idea when minority members of the board said they wouldn’t participate.
A short while later, the district announced to the board that three Beaufort County School District employees had received federal subpoenas in an FBI investigation related to the construction of two Bluffton schools built during Moss’ tenure and using an architect Moss had worked with in North Carolina.
Also, after two bond referendums for more than $300 million failed in November 2016, the board decided to try again in April with a $76 million bond referendum that would have been used, in part, to expand the two schools referenced in the subpoenas.
It wasn’t until after that referendum failed by a historic margin on April 21 that traction on the mutual agreement with Moss really picked up, according to Kinton.
“In my mind (the second referendum failure) reconfirmed the distraction of the past was driving all of the conversations, including the ability of the district to get money to build schools,” she said.
Despite suggestions from Striebinger to inform the rest of the board about the negotiations taking place between the board and Moss, Kinton decided not to do that.
“I wasn’t willing to take the risk of putting it out there and then getting it breached to the public, because that would break his contract,” she said. “I did not trust the entire board to keep a confidential conversation, confidential.”
When asking board members who have typically supported Moss why they now agreed he should go, nearly all of them said it was about “moving the district forward.”
“I believe that our district is better off than it was before (he was superintendent), but I believe that because some very loud people in the community and a couple of board members weren’t ever going to get over (Moss’ ethics violations), that it was in the best interest of everybody for him to move on,” Cordray said.
Did signs point to a departure?
Moss’ departure comes at the same time his original contract was supposed to expire. In 2014, a year after Moss was hired on a five-year contract, the board chose to extend his contract to 2020.
Signs that Moss might be considering an early departure began to emerge in 2016 when, around the same time the S.C. Ethics Commission announced he was under investigation, he put his house on the market.
However, it wasn’t until the first day of the 2017-2018 school year, according to county property records, that the house sold.
At the time, Moss maintained that he planned to continue “working in Beaufort County” for years to come and that he was “looking for another house.”
According to county property records, Moss never bought another house in Beaufort County.
Instead, he and his wife purchased a home in North Carolina in August 2017, around the same time their Beaufort County home sold, according to online property records.
Then in April, the Alabama Board of Education named Moss as the alternate in its search for the next state superintendent, catching both the public and at least some members of the board by surprise.
Moss again denied he was looking to leave Beaufort County.
“I did not pursue this position,” Moss wrote at that time. “My goal is to continue working in South Carolina until I retire.”
Moss denies that he knew about the board’s mutual agreement discussions at that point.
However, in a recent interview, Childs, the board’s attorney, contradicted this by saying Moss knew in December that facilitating his departure was on the board’s radar.
“In fairness, while he was aware that some members favored it, I don’t think he thought the majority favored it. And he very much wanted to stay and finish out the contract,” Childs said.
When Moss offered his resignation to the board on May 15, he said “it’s difficult to leave a place when you don’t want to leave.”
In a recent interview, Moss further explained by saying: “All of those things that take a few years to get in place and to work out the bugs, so to speak, are now in place. So leaving at this juncture and knowing that the next five years are going to be an amazing time for Beaufort County ... is tough to leave as a professional educator.”
At the Beaufort County School District headquarters on July 18, Moss was asked if there was any incident or action he would have done differently looking back at his time at the district.
Initially he said he couldn’t think of anything specific.
But by the end of a nearly hourlong interview, Moss had an answer: allowing his wife to be hired in 2015.
“That is one decision that, obviously, I wish I could take back, and that’s the only decision I wish I could take back,” he said.
“Even though I did it completely with 11 (board) members saying it was OK.”