Education

Beaufort Co. school board’s lawyer suggested one member sue another, email alleges

A Beaufort County Board of Education member says the same attorney who was hired to protect the full board in a grievance case this past summer advocated for one board member to sue another after the latter allegedly made the former’s identity public against the attorney’s advice.

In an email sent Tuesday afternoon to the board, JoAnn Orischak railed against the board’s “mystery” vote in the matter, referred to the attorney’s “questionable advisement” and urged fellow members to end their relationship with Andrea White, the Columbia-based lawyer hired in June to represent them after grievances were filed by school district employees against board secretary William Smith.

White had advised the board in July not to publicly name Smith — an elected official representing voters in parts of St. Helena Island and Beaufort.

She also advised the board not to reveal the nature of the grievances.

Smith’s identity was disclosed in internal board emails obtained and published by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in August.

The nature of the grievances, however, still has not been made public.

It is still not known whether Smith was disciplined in the matter. He has kept his position as the board’s secretary, and as a member of the operations committee.

In her email Tuesday, Orischak cited an Aug. 20 email from White to board chairwoman Christina Gwozdz, in which White wrote that she “sought to protect, to the greatest extent possible, the entire Board of Trustees.”

“Why then has Ms. White now encouraged Mr. Smith to go after the Board member who revealed Mr. Smith’s name to the news media?,” Orischak wrote Tuesday. “Ms. White’s actions are a direct contradiction to protecting the FULL BOARD.”

Last week, the school district denied the Packet and Gazette’s Freedom of Information Act request for the Aug. 20 email from White to Gwozdz, citing “attorney-client privilege.” It is the district’s fifth rejection of the newspapers’ attempts to obtain information about the grievances.

Board member John Dowling, who has repeatedly called for White to be removed from the board’s list of approved attorneys, agreed with Orischak in an emailed reply.

“Since when does the Board conspire with an Attorney to keep public information secret from the Public?”

Both Orischak and Dowling recused themselves from multiple closed-door discussions of the grievances, citing ethical concerns and expressing discomfort with White’s involvement, which, as of Sept. 10, has cost the district more than $16,000 in legal payment.

Orischak did not say in the email why she believes White encouraged Smith to sue another board member. When asked about this Tuesday afternoon, she declined to reveal her source. She did not name the board member that White allegedly encouraged Smith to sue.

On Tuesday, Smith declined to comment on whether he had been urged to sue another board member by White. He also would not say if he was considering a lawsuit against another board member.

Smith has repeatedly declined to speak about the grievances against him and has never publicly confirmed his identity as the recipient of the complaints.

Gwozdz said in an email Tuesday evening that board will discuss whether to remove White from its approved attorney list at the board’s Nov. 5 meeting.

A phone message for White left with the receptionist at White and Story law firm Tuesday afternoon was not returned, nor was an email sent by the Packet and the Gazette.

Orischak’s email represents the latest point of contention in what has been a four-month saga.

“I think we’ll be done when the board actually sees the grievances they’ve agreed to resolve,” Dowling said Tuesday.

‘A mystery resolution’

In early August and behind closed doors, the board received verbal advice from White on how to resolve the employee complaints made against Smith.

The board publicly voted to accept that advice but never publicly disclosed what that advice was.

After the Packet and the Gazette filed a FOIA request in early August for details on what the board had voted to accept, the school district responded by saying that the advice was never put in writing and therefore it had no relevant documents to release.

Orischak brought up this denial in Tuesday’s email, calling the vote a “mystery resolution to the grievance matter.”

“The Board has nothing more than a hand-shake agreement to show for it,” she wrote.

“There is no WRITTEN PRODUCT per White’s counsel as is customary when retaining an attorney to facilitate a resolution,” Orischak continued.

Dowling has maintained for several months that the grievances “weren’t legit.”

He replied to Orischak’s Tuesday email with a reference to White’s Aug. 20 correspondence.

“White states that Will Smith’s identity was not protected under the FOIA (which means that it is public information) and goes on to pledge cooperation with the Board to keep it hidden from the public by only communicating verbally with the Board,” Dowling wrote Tuesday afternoon.

“Since when does the Board conspire with an Attorney to keep public information secret from the Public?”

An Aug. 20 request by the Packet and the Gazette for legal invoices regarding the complaints was fulfilled in October.

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. Between June 19 and Sept. 10, White’s firm White & Story LLC billed the district $16,219.22 for their work to resolve the grievances in secret.

Dowling said Tuesday he was calling for White’s removal from the list of board-approved attorneys because he was dissatisfied with the quality of work, “especially in terms of what we’ve been paying her.”

What was resolved?

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.

In the Sept. 30 response to Cartledge, the attorney general’s office wrote that 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.

At the board’s Oct. 15 meeting, Orischak moved that the board ask the office for a third opinion: whether or not district employees had the right to grieve board members.

The motion failed 4-6, with Orischak, Dowling, Mel Campbell and David Striebinger in favor.

Smith was absent from the vote.

Correction: Due to a board clerical error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated who supported the Beaufort County Board of Education’s vote..

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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.
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