Mystery vote hurts school board credibility

Beaufort County school district officials have tied themselves up in knots on the employment of former H.E. McCracken Middle School principal Phillip Shaw.

In the process, they have damaged their credibility, sacrificing it to a long-time problem of relying on legal advice as a crutch. Common sense and answering questions forthrightly don't enter their thinking often enough.

On Tuesday, the board voted 10-0, with board member Michael Sanz absent, to "conditionally" accept superintendent Jeffrey Moss' recommendation to suspend and terminate a contract employee subject to a possible hearing at a later date.

District officials wouldn't say who this was about despite its being a public vote. A public vote ought to name names or what is the point? They later cited state law dealing with the disciplining of school administrators and teachers, claiming it prohibited them from naming the employee because the employee has a right to a private hearing.

The sections cited in a statement Wednesday from Board Chairman Bill Evans and Moss do not specifically state that district officials can't release an employee's name.

The law does state: "Any such hearing shall be public unless the teacher requests in writing that it be private."

That suggests an assumption of openness in the case of disciplining or firing a public official. (The sections of the law cited can be found at www.scstatehouse.gov/code/t59c025.php.)

All signs point to Tuesday's vote being about Shaw, who was placed on administrative leave last November and subsequently took personal leave, according to district officials. Shaw was reassigned to another job in January, but never reported to that job. All the while, he's been paid his annual salary of $93,774.

The district renewed Shaw's contract in April, along with hundreds of other contract employees, saying it had to be renewed because he had not been fired, but also saying he still had to settle problems with the district before he could come to work next school year.

His leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act was due to run out at the end of June, former acting superintendent Jackie Rosswurm said June 7, after Shaw's replacement at McCracken had been hired. Rosswurm said then, "We've been contacted by his attorney and are in the process of setting up meetings and hope to bring a resolution to the situation soon."

That brings us to Tuesday's meeting and the vote about the mysterious employee.

Evans said Wednesday: "The law ... does nothing to keep the public informed. But we have a statute that says the name is to be kept private and our attorneys tell us that private not only relates to the hearing, but the confidentiality of the employee's name."

But the only mention of privacy in the sections cited is the employee's right to request in writing a private hearing before the school board within 15 days of receiving notice of suspension or termination.

Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association and a freedom of information expert, said, "The law is meant to afford a teacher or principal the opportunity to keep the reason for his or her suspension or termination confidential; not prohibit the public's right to know about actions taken against a public official by a governing body."

Under the state's Freedom of Information Act, public bodies may -- but aren't required to -- meet in secret to discuss employee hiring, firing, discipline or promotion. Personal information, whose disclosure would constitute an "unreasonable invasion of personal privacy" can be withheld. The law also states the provision can't be interpreted to restrict access to information contained in public records. Votes must be public.

Evans says the board is following the advice of its attorneys and complains that the law is convoluted and in need of change.

The board "would be irresponsible to put that person's name out there and open ourselves up to a lawsuit," he said. "We are working actively to try to fix this problem. ... We need to find better way to walk the thin line between being transparent and respecting the employee's right to privacy."

What is convoluted is the district's interpretation of the law, particularly when it comes to public votes, and its handling of Shaw's employment.