Liz Farrell

The real motives behind the school board’s closed-door meeting this week

School board member: Statement sent to media doesn't represent all

Beaufort County School board member Joseph Dunkle told The Island Packet & The Beaufort Gazette in an interview Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, that a statement the board sent the media was not representative of all the members and that it also damaged
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Beaufort County School board member Joseph Dunkle told The Island Packet & The Beaufort Gazette in an interview Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, that a statement the board sent the media was not representative of all the members and that it also damaged

The Beaufort County School Board has outdone itself once again.

Four things are now clear after Monday night’s specially called, closed-door meeting to receive additional legal advice on the outcome of a vote that dropped two local colleges from the November sales-tax referendum:

1. Superintendent Jeff Moss and a bloc on the board don’t think the referendum can pass without dealing-in the potential voters who might be aligned with the University of South Carolina Beaufort and Technical College of the Lowcountry.

2. This same bloc didn’t get what they wanted the first time around, so they are now looking for a way to change the outcome of the vote to suit their needs.

3. This same bloc doesn’t want you to think this is what is going on, though, so they found a joke of a reason to have a closed-door meeting to make sure you couldn’t hear their thoughts on the matter or question their claims.

4. This same bloc never learns.

The school board and the superintendent will deny all of the above, of course.

The board will tell you they met behind closed doors because they are very prudent people who wanted to get ahead of any potential lawsuit that might pop up as a result of USCB and TCL not being included in the referendum.

The board will tell you that they did so because constituents have raised this very concern with them.

The board and the superintendent will tell you that they did not add USCB and TCL to the referendum to gain votes.

They will tell you that everything they do is for the children and that to focus on anything otherwise is an affront to those kids.

Let me be clear: The Beaufort County school board and Superintendent Jeff Moss do not have the political capital with this community to be implicitly trusted or believed.

The meeting they held Monday night was closed to the public for what is ultimately an imaginary problem about an imaginary scenario involving imaginary money and an imaginary responsibility to two institutions that do not fall under the purview of this board.

When the board voted Aug. 2 on whether to add USCB and TCL to their proposed sales-tax referendum, they needed eight board members to be in favor of it.

Eight, their outside legal counsel told them twice before the Aug. 2 vote, is the number that represents two-thirds of the 11-member board.

Meaning, eight is the number required to reach a supermajority.

Again, that number is eight.

Do not lose sight of that number.

But the board only had seven votes.

Chairwoman Mary Cordray abstained because she is the budget director at USCB, which stood to receive half of the $28.2 million the board sought to allocate to the colleges out of its 1 percent sales-tax referendum — expected to generate about $282 million over the course of 10 years if voters approve the plan in November.

Cordray recused herself from the vote because, one would naturally assume, she knew how it would look if she voted on an issue that would directly benefit her employer.

It was the right thing to do and a rare sign that this clumsy board has any self-awareness whatsoever.

Looking back over the past year, it is perhaps the only sign.

On Monday night, the board chose to meet behind closed doors to get additional legal counsel from Drew Davis, the board’s in-house lawyer, on what exactly a “supermajority” of 11 people means if one member abstains.

While the school board is allowed to meet in executive session to receive legal counsel, it is not mandatory. And given their credibility in the community, it certainly was not wise.

There is no lawsuit. There is no broken contract. And there was never any obligation for them to share money they do not have with USCB or TCL.

Davis had asked for an opinion from the state Attorney General’s office, which told him that legal precedent is split on what constitutes two-thirds of a board’s membership when one person doesn’t vote.

The opinion from the AG’s office ended with a personal recommendation from Matthew Houck, the assistant attorney general: “Out of an abundance of caution, I recommend the more conservative approach to interpreting the two-thirds vote to mean two-thirds of all members composing the voting body.”

Houck also strongly encouraged the board to petition the court for a definitive ruling on this matter.

On Tuesday evening, a statement was sent out on behalf of the school board officers to explain what the board discussed Monday — which is a question Cordray would not directly answer when an Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette reporter asked her at the meeting.

In the statement, the board officers say, “Prior to the vote, because the board has 11 members, it was believed that eight yes-votes were needed for passage.”

No. Prior to the vote, this board knew that Cordray had a conflict of interest and would need to recuse herself. They knew the number of members voting would be 10 when they received a legal opinion — twice — from Frannie Heizer of McNair Law Firm, who told them eight constitutes a supermajority.

The statement also says, “Preliminary research could find no South Carolina case law that applied, and a communication from the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office suggested that the board seek an answer from the court system.”

Heizer would have done “preliminary research” that gave her reason to issue her opinion to the board — twice — that the number of yes-votes they needed is eight.

The most interesting part of this statement from the board’s officers, though, is that Houck’s recommendation that the board adhere to two-thirds of the full membership — again, eight — is absent.

I guess the board’s officers — Cordray, Laura Bush and Evva Anderson — did not deem it important enough to include in their statement.

You might, at this point, wonder why it is so important for the school board to know whether they should round up or round down on the seven people who voted in favor of giving the colleges 10 percent of the $282 million the district is hoping to get for itself.

Why do they care if USCB and TCL get money?

Because local higher education matters to them?

Because the board cares about the trajectory of students’ lives after graduation?

Of course, yes. Every single board member would attest to their belief in the importance of education and of serving the 22,000 students in the district.

But that’s just the wrapper on what turns out to be a very different candy bar.

The real treat is called “smart strategy.”

Adding the colleges to the sales-tax referendum is to get more people to say yes to the bigger picture, the hundreds of millions of dollars that Moss and the board plan to collect over the next 10 years and spend on two new schools, repairs and HVAC updates.

Moss and the board are seeking a buy-in from those who want to see USCB and TCL flourish and from those who see the long-term economic benefit of such for the county.

Prominent businesspeople might get on board. Maybe even members of the tourism industry and the healthcare industry.

And, let’s face it, Moss and the board need this buy-in from the people who might not have kept up beat-for-beat with the fallout from last year, when Moss changed the district’s nepotism policy around the same time his wife was hired in a newly created position paying $90,000 in the same district office that Moss works in.

But the simplest way to get a county full of fiscally smart adults to approve an educational sales tax, which would help the district keep pace with the area’s rapid growth, would be for the board and for Moss to start acting in ways that show the public that they can be trusted.

That is my recommendation to them.