School board, local activists go on attack

9 mins read

By Sally Mahan

A string of toxic emails between board of education members over comments made by the chairman that critics of the board will “die and go to hell” also revealed that one had told another that she hoped “she would die or fall off a cliff.”

The exchange started when local activist and former school board member Jim Bequette emailed members of the media and school board members that Beaufort County School District board of education Chairman Earl Campbell, who represents District 1 in Northern Beaufort County, should resign from his post on the board.

At an Oct. 3 board meeting, Campbell, who has served on the board for more than 20 years, said, “Sometimes people get their blood pressure up staying negative, but you will die and go to hell and these kids will still be here and some of us will still be here.” 

He appeared to be targeting Citizens Advocating Responsible Education (CARE), a group of local activists who have been critical of the board and the district administration. 

“I let my statement stand,” said Campbell. “I am a school board member and represent District 1, but I also represent every student in this county. People only want to talk about the negative and I can’t just sit back and let that happen.

“We have good teachers, good students and good staff and the negativity affects some of our employees. 

“It’s kind of funny that people want to criticize but can’t take criticism. We have a lot of good things going on in our district,” said Campbell

CARE members have said the board is dysfunctional and that Superintendent Jeffrey Moss should step down from his post due to ethics issues, including a past incident of nepotism. 

Moss received his annual evaluation on Oct. 9 and was given a “satisfactory” grade in a 6-4 vote by the board.

After Bequette sent his email on Oct. 9, in which he said, “If (Campbell’s) statement was sent or made publicly, he should resign immediately,” a chain reaction of back-and-forth emails among local activists and board members got underway.

JoAnn Orischak, who represents District 11 on Hilton Head Island, responded to Bequette, saying, “And I thought my public comments raised eyebrows. …”

Evva Anderson, who represents District 6 in the southwest Beaufort County, took offense, writing back to Orischak, saying, “You are quick to criticize … yet you sit by and allow your friend (Richard) Bisi (a member of CARE) to curse in our meetings and say nothing. That says volumes.”

Orischak wrote back, “Just a little humor, Evva. Trying to lighten the mood a bit. … As a reminder, our board policy does not permit board members to directly respond to, or have exchanges with, speakers during public comment. No matter how spirited a commenter may be, I try to follow this rule; however, there have been many times when I would have liked to respond. …

“While we are at it, and what is even more disconcerting than the use of the ‘Hell’ word, is that YOU were overheard saying that you’d wish I would ‘die or fall off a cliff.’ It’s one thing to think this, but it’s quite another to utter it aloud.

“One might consider this a threat to one’s personal safety. But I’ll bet you were just interjecting a bit of humor,” Orischak wrote.

Meanwhile, activists and CARE members were not amused.

Bisi wrote, “You have a lot of nerve Ms. Anderson. In the last two years, I have attended 39 school board meetings and have spoken 35 times in those meetings. One time, when I was so frustrated over the audit debate, did I say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” Bisi wrote.

“Your reply was that ‘children might be watching’ and your friend, Bill Payne, muttered under his breath but was picked up by the microphone, ‘That was vulgar.’ 

“And yet the school board chair can dismiss ALL of the district critics by telling them ‘they will die and go to hell.’ Are you kidding me?

“Mr. Campbell should resign his chairmanship and should resign his seat on the board,” Bisi wrote. “His remarks are simply outrageous and unbecoming that of a school board chair.”

Board member Anderson did not respond to a request for comment on her exchange with Orischak or Bisi’s charges.

Board member Orischak did respond to a request for comment by saying, “Mr. Campbell is a good man; so obviously, I am disappointed in his comments to community members. 

“It’s not the profanity that disturbs me (if you can label ‘Hell’ profanity), it’s the intent and spirit of the statement that is problematic, particularly for a board chairman. I would not be surprised if Mr. Campbell apologized on his own without any board intervention.”

As far as Anderson’s comments about falling off a cliff and dying, Orischak said, “You can verify Mrs. Anderson’s comments with board members and others who overheard. As a side note, Mrs. Anderson continues to show up at my meetings with constituents, which is concerning given her comments toward me.”  

Meanwhile, other activists are calling for the head of Campbell.

Activist Geri Smith said, “Please add me to the list of citizens requesting you (Campbell) resign, not only from the chair, but as board representative for District 1 as well. In my opinion, while under your leadership the board continues to bring shame, embarrassment and ridicule upon the board of education and the school district. I find your content of
character lacking.”

Board member David Striebinger, who represents District 2 in northeast Beaufort County, was dismayed by the emails.

“I suggest we stop these ‘fanning the flames’ email exchanges,” he said. “They serve no useful purpose. These emails display how deep the problems on the board run … at a personal level. 

“What started with inappropriate comments by the chair has expanded to acrimonious exchanges between other board members,” said Striebinger. “This is not problem solving. A simple apology by the chair would close the issue out, but these exchanges do the opposite … they broaden the issue.”

School board election

Former Beaufort County School District board of education member Patricia Felton-Montgomery was elected to represent portions of Bluffton in November 2016 and was subsequently named chair of the board. However, she resigned in June.

A special election will be held Tuesday, Oct. 17, to fill her seat. Only voters in that district can cast a ballot. The candidates are John Dowling and Susan Gordon.

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