Liz Farrell

If you decide to give money to Beaufort Co. schools, be willing to fight off vampires | Opinion

Just outside the perimeter of a hurricane are professionals waiting for the storm to pass.

They know exactly what to do in the aftermath.

They bring immediate relief, clear the roads and haul away trees. They restore the electricity and inspect the bridges. They repair. They rebuild. They help homeowners with the paperwork.

They are a welcome presence in a time of need.

But — as we learned three years ago after Hurricane Matthew — with the helpers come the vampires, the ones on the inside and from farther reaches who take advantage of a community’s confusion and its weariness, banking on a loosey-goosey system flush with government dollars and lacking in oversight.

To them, the storm is not a chance to earn an honest living; it is an opportunity to charge a lot for a little or for no work at all.

And they sleep soundly when no one is paying attention.

We can’t always identify corrupt characters at first — particularly when they come in the form of government employees.

But vampires hiss when the sun hits their skin.

We can expose them by pulling back the curtains and letting in the light.

We can discourage their blood-sucking through vigilance.

This is the power we have, both individually and as a community.

Hang on to this thought. I will return to it.

In less than a month, and after two failed votes over the past three years, Beaufort County will once again be asked to approve hundreds of millions of dollars in a school bond referendum.

The money will pay for much-needed repairs, safety upgrades and new construction to alleviate overcrowding.

This referendum will pass if you decide it should.

Which you should.

As the education editor at The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette for the past four years, I have had a closer-than-front-row seat to the leadership issues that have plagued the Beaufort County School District and its school board.

Since the day it was revealed that the wife of former Superintendent Jeff Moss had been hired for a high-paying job in administration, I have been part of the team that has held open the curtains so all of you could see in the windows.

During the Moss era, the education beat was covered by reporters Rebecca Lurye (now at The Hartford Courant in Connecticut), Kelly Meyerhofer (now at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison) and Maggie Angst (now at The Mercury News in San Jose, Calif.).

These are assertive, serious and talented journalists whose work had significant impact on Beaufort County.

In the before and after of the past two school bond referendums, these reporters and I became used to hearing from members of the Moss camp — which included community activists — that we were only bringing issues to light — such as the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the construction of two Bluffton schools — because we were negative people who were simply “anti-referendum” or “anti-kids.”

Not pro-accountability. Not pro-transparency. Not pro-good stewardship of taxpayer money.

The district’s need for the money has always been clear. It was always there, conjoined to a sick twin, an inextricable part of a corrupted whole.

But keeping the curtains open, no matter how challenging, was necessary.

The school district is the county’s largest employer.

A healthy public school system can change the landscape. It influences home values, the small-business community and economic development.

Good schools mean smarter kids, mean smarter adults, mean innovation and opportunity, mean a more robust and pleasant society.

And municipal bond sales — especially those worth hundreds of millions of dollars — are very big business.

The old school board’s dismal lack of leadership and its failure to manage Moss not only wasted gross amounts of taxpayer money and stalled progress, it left this county wholly at risk for fraud, corruption and malfeasance.

Which brings me to that thought I put on hold.

Just outside the perimeter of municipal bond sales are professionals waiting for referendums to pass.

They know exactly what to do.

They advise the board and represent its best interests. They find the most advantageous borrowing rates. They broker the bond sales. They bid on lucrative contracts. They know the nuances, the process and the responsibilities of spending government money.

But with these helpers come the vampires.

And you’ll know they’re vampires when they hiss at the sunlight.

After the 2016 referendum failed, the party line from the Moss camp was that the community’s rejection stemmed from a lack of information about the measure and not from a lack of trust in who would be spending the money.

His supporters on the board denied that the public had any issue at all with Moss or them, while also blaming news coverage for public backlash.

Our questions to them were typically met with bristling, scampering and ire.

On the second go-around, the Moss camp worked hard to ensure the referendum’s success — he and his supporters hosted several town halls; they insinuated that south of the Broad students might have to go to north of the Broad schools if the measure didn’t pass; they pushed through motions and limited discussion from dissenters on the board; they scheduled the referendum for a Saturday in April when only the motivated would be likely to vote.

When that too failed — by a historic margin — you could hear the scratch and patter from the scurrying.

Moss left.

His supporters on the board are gone.

The change has been evident.

Though the board still has a ways to go in terms of practicing consistent transparency, it continues to work with an eye toward rebuilding trust with the community.

The district’s new superintendent, Frank Rodriguez, hit the ground running and has held dozens of meet and greets with teachers, parents and the public, leaving many with the impression that he has integrity and truly understands how critical it is for the community to have oversight in the process.

And the community has rewarded these efforts.

Moss failed to get any major civic or political groups to openly endorse either referendum.

The trust in his leadership was simply not there.

Now, these groups are lining up to trumpet their support.

I spoke with Tom Gardo, who is an organizer for Citizens for Better Schools Now, about why groups were more willing to openly support a school referendum now.

“I think that’s made a huge difference,” he said of the new board and superintendent.

“Also,” he said. “It’s time.”

It’s been 11 years since the county last passed a school bond referendum.

The endorsements are still coming in, he said, but have so far included the League of Women Voters in Beaufort, Hilton Head and Bluffton; the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce; the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce; the Greater Island Council; the Town of Bluffton; the Beaufort County Republican Club; the Beaufort County Democratic Club; the Southern Beaufort County Democratic Club; Lowcountry Indivisibles; the Hilton Head Island area Association of Realtors; and the Beaufort-Jasper Board of Realtors.

All of this speaks volumes about where we were and where we are going.

But it does not eliminate the need for vigilance from the public.

The curtain still must be held open so the sun can expose the vampires.

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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