Is Beaufort Co. school board’s dysfunction back? One ‘Moss minority’ member thinks so

The tense atmosphere at last week’s Beaufort County Board of Education meeting was familiar to at least one person in the room: Between the board’s split vote on a committee’s status and the friction in their debates, board member JoAnn Orischak said she was reminded of the “Moss majority” years.

“Last night I started to see the beginning seeds of a voting bloc,” she said Wednesday.

In 2015, after The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reported that former superintendent Jeff Moss had approved the hiring of his wife for a high-paying district position, the school board began to split into two distinct camps, with the superintendent’s supporters maintaining a steady majority vote.

This time, the battleground isn’t over support of a controversial superintendent. Instead, the growing tensions played out in a failed 5-5 vote on a seemingly bureaucratic issue that defines the school board’s role with the public: whether the policy committee should be temporary or standing.

The past

Prior to Moss’ 2018 resignation and a school board election that booted three of four incumbents out of office, the split board went through a gauntlet of dysfunction and mistrust.

Highlights include the $22,000 hiring of an independent facilitator to serve as the board’s “marriage counselor,” a call to the police at a closed board meeting, a report of a dead rat left on now-chairwoman Christina Gwozdz’s doorstep, and then-private citizen John Dowling confronting former chairwoman Mary Cordray at a work session, during which she called him “a stupid piece of doo-doo.”

The conflicts spread beyond the personal: in that time, two school bond referendums failed, Moss resigned with a more than $250,000 severance package, and two school board chairs stepped down, one after calls from the public and a colleague to resign.

Though only two of the 2015 board’s 11 members remain in their seats, the current board has four members of the “Moss minority,” who regularly cited a need for change and open government in their votes against Moss and board policies: District 9’s Gwozdz, District 11’s Orischak, District 6’s Dowling and District 2’s David Striebinger.

Now, that minority is splitting up.

The present

Gwozdz said she didn’t see a correlation between last week’s conflict and the issues under Moss’ tenure.

“This is an apples and oranges comparison – a voting bloc in regards to a superintendent’s tenure vs. a single board vote that did not transform a Board committee from ad hoc to standing status,” she wrote Monday. “It is unlikely that an 11-member board will reach unanimous or supermajority consensus on many issues.”

Orischak saw the issue differently.

“Here’s why I say (the opposition) was the voting bloc: I didn’t hear concrete reasons from any of them why the idea of a standing committee wasn’t viable,” she said. “The committee members made it clear the product is not done.”

The policy committee, chaired by Dowling and including board members Mel Campbell and Rachel Wisnefski, was tasked with editing the board’s policy manual and writing new policies. This scope includes the board’s guidelines for going into closed meetings, regulating comments from the public and determining the power of the school board’s leaders.

Orischak, who introduced the motion, said the committee should continue working to remove the burden of policy debates from the board as a whole, because the board already is trying to shorten its meetings. In addition, forming and enforcing policy is one of the board’s five listed goals.

While the board’s other four goals can be tied to their standing operations, academic and finance committees, the policy committee operates by itself. As it stands, it will be dissolved after this week’s two-day board work session, where the committee’s finished product will be up for a vote.

“We have five goals,” Orischak said Wednesday. “We don’t have 30, with policy down at the bottom. You call it a goal, and yet you don’t give it the same amount of oversight as the other goals?”

The former “Moss minority” members were split evenly in the vote. Orischak introduced the motion and was seconded by Dowling; they voted for it, along with Mel Campbell, Wisnefski and board secretary William Smith.

Gwozdz and Striebinger voted against, with Robine, Earl Campbell and Richard Geier joining them.

Board member and academic committee chairwoman Tricia Fidrych was absent for Tuesday’s meeting, but had voiced support for Orischak’s motion before traveling out of town.

In response to questioning from Orischak at Tuesday’s meeting, Gwozdz said she would vote no because she wanted the board to see a finished policy manual before making any decisions.

She also cited the committee’s slow pace — it’s met almost weekly for the past six months — and its rephrasing of board motions in policy proposals, which she said violated Robert’s Rules of Order on Monday.

“I don’t see why you have to dig your heels in and tell the chairs of the committee that you’re not going to listen to their recommendations,” Dowling told Gwozdz and the board shortly before the vote, citing the two standing committee chairs that voiced support for a standing committee. “It’s a waste of time and money to have the debate at the board level when it’s not necessary.”

The future

Dowling’s ad hoc policy committee has finished its meetings, but the effects of the vote are ongoing: board members will review the new policy manual at all-day work sessions on Friday and Saturday, where in the past they’ve discussed school construction, rezoning possibilities and their relationship with the superintendent.

No matter the results of the work session, Dowling said he’s not optimistic about future cooperation with Gwozdz.

“She asked officers to resign over the very thing she does now,” he said. “I believe in service leadership. Gwozdz believes we’re her employees.”

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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.