When public bodies censure one of their own

By Joann Orischak

Lately I’ve been following a news story out of South Carolina’s Lexington Richland 5 School District regarding the abrupt “resignation” of their CEO and SC Superintendent of the Year, and the fallout that ensued. 

The fallout included a widespread, emotionally-charged outpouring from school communities, the resignation of one school board trustee in protest to board actions, at least two scathing Editorial Opinions from major news outlets criticizing the D5 Board of Trustees, and one very public censure by the board of the board member who resigned in protest. 

If you want to follow along, the Post and Courier and The State are providing updates regularly. 

Censure, not to be confused with censor, was aptly defined on one of the D5 education advocacy group facebook pages while kibitzing over recent events. The facebook group provided the following, compliments of Merriam-Webster. com: 

“… Less severe than an expulsion, a censure doesn’t always have an official penalty attached to it (usually, the very act of censure going on the record is enough to tarnish a reputation) …” 

The primary reason the D5 board censured their fellow board member was based on the assumption (right or wrong) that the board member violated executive session confidentiality and board policy. Those opposing the censure maintain that the board may have taken illegal action in executive session, and that is what justified the board member speaking out and revealing events. The D5 facebook groups are battling it out as we speak. 

Did I mention that the freshly censured board member is an attorney by profession? Then there’s that. 

As I follow this intrigue, it’s difficult not to draw parallels to our own Beaufort County School District. It has been well documented that our board of education has censured multiple board members throughout the years with mixed results. It takes two data points to make a trend. 

The most recent example of our school board censuring one of its own has resulted in a lawsuit. The board member who filed the complaint certainly isn’t the first to be censured, and likely won’t be the last given the trend established. 

Merriam-Webster’s definition unfortunately rings a familiar bell; censure really is about diminishing the stature of the individual in question publicly. Even if that is not the intended objective of the public body, in reality, it is often the outcome. 

Public bodies are permitted to express disapproval of their colleagues publicly, according to multiple S.C. Attorney General Opinions, but is it advisable? (As in, I’m free to polish off this five-pound burrito, but is that advisable?) That’s the question public bodies should be asking themselves, rather than seeking the immediate gratification of publicly admonishing elected officials they don’t really have jurisdiction over anyway. Is censure worth the potential legal backlash to come? 

I’ll be watching the unfortunate D5 drama as it unfolds from a distance. In addition to news article, I’ll listen in to their Facebook groups engaged in all-things education to learn the “backstory.” 

We used to have similar education advocacy Facebook groups here in Beaufort County, but they are now largely defunct. Imagine the sharing of information that could take place if every district had community Facebook groups engaged in education connecting with one another. 

Imagine the cautionary tales that could be told and the hard lessons prevented. 

JoAnn Orischak served as the District 11 Representative to the Beaufort County Board of Education from 2012-2020. She resides on Hilton Head Island and can be reached at JoAnnOrischak.TheIslandNews@ gmail.com. 

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