Beaufort Co. school board member who’s the subject of four employee complaints revealed

Beaufort County Board of Education emails obtained Tuesday by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reveal that William Smith, a board officer who represents parts of St. Helena Island and Beaufort, is the previously unnamed board member against whom at least one school district employee has lodged four complaints.

The emails also indicate that the board hired a private investigator to run a background check on Smith this summer.

For two months, the board has kept the public in the dark about the board member’s identity, the nature of the complaints, the seriousness of any allegations being made, as well as details about a resolution reached two weeks ago.

The board hired outside counsel to handle the matter and has been billed nearly $5,000 so far with more invoices expected to come in.

On Tuesday, the district rejected four Freedom of Information Act requests made by the Packet and the Gazette for documents related to the grievances, citing attorney-client privilege.

The newspapers had asked for emails regarding the grievances, the attorney’s recommendation on how to resolve the grievances and the actual grievances.

Smith declined Tuesday to comment on the grievances.

When asked whether he thought he had an obligation as an elected official to speak publicly about the matter, he said, “I hear what you’re saying. But I have no comment. I’m focused on the beginning of the school year.”

Smith said Tuesday he has hired Beaufort attorney Clifford Bush III to represent him. He is paying for Bush’s services.

Though the board has barely spoken publicly about the matter, members have recently called into question Smith’s role as board secretary.

The board was scheduled to discuss Smith’s responsibilities at Tuesday night’s meeting, according to an agenda posted at 4:25 p.m. Monday.

Twelve minutes after the original posting, a revised agenda was distributed that removed the discussion from the meeting.

On Tuesday, board chairperson Christina Gwozdz said the discussion was put on the agenda because Smith is responsible for signing meeting minutes as board secretary and had not done so since being elected to the position in January.

When asked why Smith had not been signing the minutes, Gwozdz declined to comment.

The agenda item was removed, Gwozdz said, because Smith retroactively signed the minutes.

Smith declined to comment on his reason for not signing the minutes at Tuesday’s board meeting.

At the board’s work session Saturday, members discussed Smith’s role as it related to board executive administrator Robyn Cushingberry.

Smith said the board secretary and Cushingberry “normally” work together to keep records and that he is responsible for evaluating her performance.

“Due to some difficulties,” he said Saturday, “things have changed.”

When asked what he meant by “difficulties,” Smith declined to comment, saying it was a personnel issue.

After inspecting unredacted invoices from Andrea White, the Columbia-based attorney representing the board on the matter, board member JoAnn Orischak sent an email Monday to fellow members asking why White had hired a private investigator to run a background check on Smith.

“On July 9, Ms. White stated that the Board’s hiring of counsel was to protect Will and the Board. At least one of our officers echoed that sentiment,” Orischak wrote to her colleagues Tuesday. “Given the discovery that a PI was utilized to investigate Will, that statement now seems insincere.”

Orischak also asked whether Smith had consented to a background check. He declined to comment on the background check or the hiring of a private investigator when asked by the Packet and Gazette.

The complaints against Smith were resolved at the board’s Aug. 6 meeting, according to Gwozdz, who again declined Tuesday to provide specifics on the nature of the complaints or the resolution.

In an oped that ran Sunday in the Packet and the Gazette, Gwozdz said she could not discuss the lawyer’s recommendation because of both attorney-client privilege and employee confidentiality.

On Tuesday, Gwozdz said she is not the only board member who has seen the grievances, but she declined to comment on them or the hiring of a private investigator, saying that the board would have to publicly vote to clear individual trustees to speak about executive session.

It is also unclear whether the complaints made against Smith are a violation of board policy and whether he faces any sanctioning from the board in the future.

In a discussion at the work session Saturday about the board’s lack of policy on sanctioning board members who break policy, member John Dowling commented that he was worried the board would try and remove a member, therefore “nullifying an election.”

Member David Striebinger, however, said the board was not discussing “any of those dark, draconian things,” and was simply discussing what should happen should a policy be violated by any member.

Smith interjected.

“Yeah, but this came up.”

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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.