Public deserves to see school district subpoenas

Beaufort County School District Superintendent Jeff Moss
Beaufort County School District Superintendent Jeff Moss File photo

Why is the FBI interested in two new schools in Bluffton?

It’s a fair question.

The public deserves answers.

It will likely be quite a while before we know, but this much we know now: Beaufort County School District Superintendent Jeff Moss does not want the public to know why the FBI is interested in the two schools built during his troubled leadership of our schools.

In early January, the U.S. Attorney’s Office subpoenaed two district employees — the chief financial officer and the facilities, planning and construction officer — requesting records pertaining to the construction of May River High School and River Ridge Academy, including information about the bidding process and the architect used in the project.

On Friday, the school district said it will not release the subpoenas to the public, as requested by these newspapers and others through the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.

Even members of the Beaufort County Board of Education have not been given copies of the subpoenas.

They are public documents, pertaining to public servants and public information, about public schools.

Yet three board officers — acting on their own with no vote taken by the board — said the public cannot see them.

An unfortunate conclusion is that the school district has something to hide. That may not be the case. But it is definitely how the district is acting, even though the district has said it is not the target of the FBI investigation, and even though a subpoena is not an accusation of wrongdoing, much less a verdict of guilt.

A subpoena simply states what the FBI is looking at in our school system, and the public deserves to know that.

The school district wants us to think it has no choice but to withhold the subpoenas, but that’s not the case. They could, and should, release them.

Their reaction has led to speculation the district wants to hide this issue until its $76 million bond referendum is voted on in April.

It’s an issue of trust. This episode is another blow to the public trust in Moss and the school board he domineers. When the school district needs public trust most, it continues its slide through the mud that started after Moss arrived in 2013 and hired his wife to a newly created central office position. He said he did nothing wrong, but was publicly reprimanded by the State Ethics Commission and fined after admitting guilt to two of three ethics charges as part of a deal to avoid a hearing.

After the federal subpoenas came to light in mid-January, Moss told the board and the public that subpoenas are common and not something routinely shared with the public. A large school district certainly could get many subpoenas. But this specific situation is different. It is exceedingly rare, if not unprecedented, that the FBI wants to look at the district’s affairs.

But the spin cycle was on, and it has not stopped.

For the public to even know about this issue, a board member had to make a motion in public session demanding a public statement be made on the subpoenas. Then, some board members said they were told in closed session by the district’s attorney that they could face jail time if they talked about the subpoenas. And now public requests to get the subpoenas have been denied. Meanwhile, right on cue, the school board has another meltdown, abruptly ending a meeting on the topic Friday because one board member was accused of being a potential litigant against the district.

Our reporting shows that school districts around the nation have made similar subpoenas public. And experts on the state Freedom of Information Act say there is no legal reason to withhold public release of the subpoenas.

When will this board turn the page? When will it learn: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”? The hole is a lack of public trust. And with Moss at the helm, the hole seems to have become a bottomless pit.