Education

Over and again, Beaufort Co. school board’s secrecy only makes things messier | Opinion

When you sweep dirt under a rug, you’re ultimately making a bigger mess.

This is a truth Beaufort County’s school board ought to know well by now.

If it needs a refresher, I’d be happy to sit with each member and slowly flip through the Moss Administration Annals with them.

(Please don’t make me.)

The point here is simple: Problems don’t often go away when you hide them. In fact, they tend to get worse and more expensive for taxpayers.

Yet, in the case of board secretary William Smith and the unknown grievances filed against him by district employees this summer, hiding the problem from the public seems to be exactly where this school board’s energy — and your money — has been directed.

Four months later and we’re still talking about those secret employee grievances?

Yes! My God.

Are they even that interesting?

Probably not! And that’s the crazy thing!

But, like I said, what did the board expect?

From the beginning it sought to keep Smith’s identity private — despite Smith being a publicly elected official who is beholden to those he represents.

It’s quite baffling when you think about it. Instead of identifying one board member, the board passively indicted all of them.

The people in Smith’s St. Helena Island and Beaufort district deserved to know it was their representative.

They deserve to know whether he is living up to the responsibility they gave him. They deserve to know whether he is compromising their share of resources, whether he is capable of pursuing their best interests, whether he is an unfair target, whether he is someone upon whom to keep a wary eye, whether he has earned their ongoing support.

To this day, the board continues to keep secret the nature of the grievances.

There are apparently four of them filed by district employees.

The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette have filed several Freedom of Information Act requests to find out more about the accusations.

Was Smith accused of abusing his power? Of interfering in the administration? Of making employees feel unsafe? Of being inappropriate, sexually or otherwise? Of breaking the board’s code of conduct? Of offending individuals?

(Shrug.)

The district rejected those FOIA requests.

Again, instead of identifying the nature of the claims, the board allows the vast gamut of possibilities to be run.

Why does any of this matter?

Because this new board had a chance to reset its reputation in January and, though it’s certainly less sycophantic than the previous crowd, it still seems to prefer a darkened room to one full of light.

Public trust in the board is absolutely essential to this school district’s success. And this school district’s success is absolutely essential to this community’s future prosperity.

The board and the district might like to think they have to keep these grievances secret to maintain the privacy of those who filed them and not to dissuade future employees from speaking up.

But that’s what redaction is for — and, I assure you, the district knows how to black out identifying information from documents.

The board might also like to think attorney-client privilege is what prevents it from discussing the way the grievances were resolved.

But that’s just how it’s chosen to handle the matter.

It could waive the privilege and let the public know whether one of the 11 voters on the board is, for instance, still authorized to visit certain schools or still allowed to talk to employees.

Is Smith’s role restricted in any way? Are the employees who complained from schools in his district? Could this issue create potential biases?

In September, the board sought an expedited opinion from the state Attorney General’s office about whether it could remove a member from office.

Were the grievances that serious?

(Again, shrug. The board, as it was already told by the Attorney General’s Office in 2016, was told again it does not have the authority to remove a member from office.)

If the grievances were that serious then we’d already know more ... right?

Possibly, but I don’t think either the district or the board has enough earned trust in their piggy banks to buy that kind of rainy-day faith yet.

In short, all the public has been left with are context clues and guessing.

Oh. And a big bill.

An attorney has charged more than $16,000 so far to handle the Smith grievances.

Some on the board might dismiss the handling of the Smith grievances by saying there is only one reason the issue is still being discussed: Because members JoAnn Orischak and John Dowling — who have been pushing for transparency from the start — won’t let it die.

Others might even try to link Orischak’s and Dowling’s continued outrage over the matter to some shadowy plot to sabotage the Nov. 5 school bond referendum.

“Why talk about negative things when it might hurt the referendum’s chances of passing?”

I have heard this line of reasoning from several people now, and it’s deeply disappointing.

Voting with your eyes wide open is not a “negative” thing. You can support the bond referendum while also demanding transparency from the board. I promise, it’s not hard.

The South Carolina Supreme Court has held that the purpose of government transparency — specifically the Freedom of Information Act — “is to protect the public from secret government activity,” and the sunshine law “should be liberally construed to carry out its purpose.”

“Any exception to the Act’s applicability must be narrowly construed.”

Now that you’ve read that, tell me how this sits with you.

The attorney handling the Smith grievances apparently encouraged Smith to sue a fellow board member for allegedly revealing Smith’s identity to the public, according to an email Orischak sent to the board this past week.

This same attorney intentionally gave advice to the board orally rather than in a written report.

Why?

State law does not protect Smith’s privacy in this case because Smith is a public official.

Putting that advice in writing would have created a public record with Smith’s name on it.

Public records are subject to open records laws and Smith’s name could not have been redacted.

And the public can’t file an open record request for unrecorded spoken word.

The board knew this.

And somehow they thought it was OK.

Columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in political science and writes about a wide range of topics, including Bravo’s “Southern Charm.” She has lived in the Lowcountry for 15 years, but still feels like a fraud when she accidentally says “y’all.”
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