Beaufort Co. school board resolves complaint against a member, but won’t say who or how

Correction: A previous version of this story has been corrected to reflect that board member JoAnn Orischak supported a motion by John Dowling to withdraw board approval of the Columbia-based law firm White and Story, which is representing the board in the undisclosed complaint regarding the board made by a district employee. The story has also been updated to clarify the nature of board chairwoman Christina Gwozdz’s remarks.

After spending nearly $5,000 on outside legal advice on the matter thus far, the Beaufort County Board of Education on Tuesday evening secretly resolved an undisclosed complaint it received two months ago from a district employee.

Though multiple board members and Andrea White, the board’s legal counsel in this matter, have confirmed that the complaint was made against a specific board member and not the board as a whole, board president Christina Gwozdz referred the Packet and Gazette to the board’s motions to take action on a complaint filed “regarding the board” and refused to confirm an individual subject of the complaint.

When asked by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette about the nature of the complaint and for details about its resolution, Gwozdz declined to comment and cited attorney-client privilege as her reason.

Ten of the 11 board members — all elected positions directly accountable to individual districts in Beaufort County — were asked Wednesday by the Packet and the Gazette whether the complaint was made against them, and if not them then who.

Board member Tricia Fidrych, who represents District 4 (Port Royal, Beaufort), was traveling and unavailable Wednesday by phone.

Here are the responses:

  • Earl Campbell, who represents District 1 (Burton, Dale, Lobeco and Seabrook), declined to comment.
  • David Striebinger, who represents District 2 (Lady’s Island, Beaufort), said “I don’t think I can answer that.”
  • William Smith, who represents District 3 (St. Helena Island, Beaufort) and serves as board secretary, declined to comment and directed the newspapers to the district’s attorney. (The district’s attorney, Wendy Cartledge, does not represent the board in this matter.)
  • Richard Geier, who represents District 5 (Burton, Okatie), said he was not the subject of the grievance, but declined to comment further.
  • John Dowling, who represents District 6 (Bluffton), said the grievance was against an individual board member and not the whole board. He said he was not the subject of the complaint but declined to say who was.
  • Rachel Wisnefski, who represents District 7 (Bluffton), declined to comment, saying the information was protected by attorney-client privilege.
  • Cathy Robine, who represents District 8 (Bluffton, Hilton Head Island) and is board vice chairwoman, declined to comment.
  • Christina Gwozdz, who represents District 9 (Bluffton, Dafuskie) and is board chairperson, declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.
  • Mel Campbell, who represents District 10 (Hilton Head Island), said the board was the client and declined to comment further, citing attorney-client privilege.
  • JoAnn Orischak, who represents District 11 (Hilton Head Island), said, “I’ve been on the receiving end of complaints for some time, but I can’t take credit for this one.” She declined to identify which board member was the subject of the complaint.

On Tuesday night, the board voted 8 to 1, with Dowling voting against the measure and Orischak abstaining, on a motion from Geier to “accept the recommendation presented by its legal counsel in reference to the grievances that were filed regarding the board.”

No public discussion was had about the motion.

Dowling said he voted against it because he had no idea what it was about. He recused himself from the earlier closed-door session in which the matter had been discussed because, he said, he did not believe the board had any authority to reprimand fellow members.

Orischak abstained from the vote because she too recused herself from the portion of executive session that handled the grievance, citing her support of Dowling’s past motion to withdraw board approval of the Columbia-based law firm White and Story, which is representing the board in the matter.

On Wednesday, the Packet and Gazette filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the district for any documents related to the resolution reached by the board in its Tuesday meeting.

District spokesman Jim Foster said the district could not fulfill the request as there are no written records or recordings made of the discussions that the board holds in private.

News of the complaint surfaced in June, when the board voted 9-0 to retain White and Story to review and assess the grievance, made by a district employee “regarding” the board.

Foster said that the matter had cost the district $4,999 in legal fees as of July 18, and that subsequent fees, including those from Tuesday night, had not been billed yet.

Although board members were told in a closed-door meeting June 25 which member the complaint concerned, they were not given specifics on the complaint itself, according to previous reporting by the Packet and the Gazette.

In July, Foster said he could not recall a complaint filed by a district employee against a board member in recent years, and that employee grievances normally go through district administrators but in this case would have been forwarded to the board chairperson.

He declined to comment on the specific complaint.

Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet

Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.