SC attorney general to Beaufort Co. school board: You can’t remove a member

The Beaufort County Board of Education spent more than $16,000 on a Columbia-based law firm to resolve in secret four undisclosed complaints made by district employees against board of education member William Smith, records show.

The board also directed the district’s on-staff attorney to ask the South Carolina Attorney General’s office for an opinion on whether the board had the authority to remove one of its own members — an answer for which they had already received from the AG’s office in 2016 after asking a similar question.

Over the past four months, the board has declined to tell the public the nature of the complaints, the severity of the allegations or the details of how the issue was resolved in August.

While Smith alone was the subject of the complaints, the board as a whole was represented by Andrea White of Columbia-based law firm White & Story LLC, which billed the district $16,219.22 between June 19 and Sept. 10 for their work on the complaints. White’s hourly rate is $245.

The district was billed for 66.75 hours of work, the majority of which was done by White with some done by aides and a private investigator who conducted a background check on Smith, along with costs for travel, copying, phone bills and online research.

Board chairwoman Christina Gwozdz said Monday the board would have to waive its attorney-client privilege in order to discuss the complaints, and that the board has chosen not to do that.

“As far as the information shared with the board during executive session on Aug. 6 by our legal counsel, that information is protected not only by the attorney-client privilege but, more importantly, involves employee confidentiality,” Gwozdz wrote in an Aug. 16 column in the Packet and the Gazette.

The board never publicly identified Smith as the subject of the complaints.

Internal emails between board members obtained by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in August — two weeks after the board announced that a resolution had been reached behind closed doors — identified Smith as the recipient of the complaints.

The district rejected four Freedom of Information Act requests made by the Packet and the Gazette in August 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.

An Aug. 20 request by the Packet and the Gazette for legal invoices regarding the complaints was fulfilled Tuesday. The bills were redacted by the district so that only the attorney’s hours can be seen and not the reasons the attorney worked those hours. Smith’s name is not included on the redacted bills.

District spokesman Jim Foster identified which entries pertained to the grievances.

Disciplinary measures

While it is unclear what, if any, disciplinary measures were taken as a result of the complaints, the board directed district lawyer Wendy Cartledge to ask the South Carolina Attorney General’s office to weigh in on the issue.

In an August letter to the office, Cartledge asked whether the board could discipline its own members for individual policy violations, and if the board had “authority to remove a board member for cause.”

This is the second time in three years the school district has asked the attorney general’s office for guidance on how to discipline a board member.

The result of the AG’s 2016 opinion was a letter of public reprimand given to JoAnn Orischak by then-board chairwoman Mary Cordray, for Orischak’s criticism of embattled superintendent Jeff Moss and accusing her of revealing to the public and the media what was said during executive session.

In the Sept. 30 response to Cartledge, the attorney general’s office reached the same conclusion it did in 2016: The board cannot remove a member, but can “express its disapproval” by removing the member from leadership or committee positions or issuing a warning or formal statement to the member. While the 2016 letter was not focused on removal, it did include a paragraph addressing it.

“(I)t is our opinion that legislation pertaining to the removal of school district trustees would not be applicable under the governing system of the Beaufort County School District since school district boards of trustees do not exist in Beaufort County,” Solicitor General Robert Cook wrote in 2016, noting that the board is a county board of education and not a school district board of trustees.

Any expressions of disapproval would have to be voted on in public session.

The only public vote the board has taken regarding the resolution of the complaints was on Aug. 6 after a vaguely worded motion “to accept the recommendations from the legal counsel.”

It passed, 8-1-1, with John Dowling voting against and Orischak abstaining. Tricia Fidrych was absent.

No formal statement of disapproval or warning has been issued publicly.

Since the complaints were resolved, Smith has kept his position as the board’s secretary and as a member of the board’s operations committee.

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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.