After a tumultuous year for the Beaufort County Board of Education, many candidates have filed to try to win a seat to represent southern Beaufort County.
Most list restoring the public’s confidence in the board and improving community relations as their top priorities, following the controversy surrounding Superintendent Jeff Moss’ decision to change school district policy to hire his wife.
Moss was later fined $2,500 by the S.C. State Ethics Commission and had to pay $500 in fees after admitting to “unintentionally” violating the state ethics law.
JoAnn Orischak of Hilton Head Island, who has been a vocal opponent of Moss’ hiring decision, is the only school board member running unopposed in the Nov. 8 election.
Incumbent Paul Roth, who was the subject of controversy earlier this year after he made comments to a reporter about Orischak and was later censured by the school board, faces challenger Patricia Felton-Montgomery in District 6, which spans the Okatie and Sun City areas. Stephen P. Bacon, who had also filed to run for the seat, withdrew his candidacy Sept. 3 and endorsed Felton-Montgomery.
Meanwhile, longtime board member Laura Bush decided not to seek re-election in District 9. Four candidates are vying for her seat, which represents Bluffton, Pritchardville and Daufuskie Island.
Here’s a rundown of the two contested school board elections for southern Beaufort County voters:
Felton-Montgomery, 70, cited Roth’s comment about Orischak as part of her belief that it’s time for a change on the school board.
Roth was quoted by a reporter with The Island Packet as calling Orischak a “hot chick” and was subsequently censured by the board in June.
“There are too many times in our society that adults use language that is inappropriate for their position,” Felton-Montgomery said. “And I think it’s particularly egregious when that person is in a position related to education, because we ought to be setting a standard for children.”
Felton-Montgomery believes the district staff needs to be more diversified, and it needs to work harder to close the “achievement gap” facing minority students.
She also wants in-depth assessments of newer programs in the district to determine whether they are achieving their goals.
She said she would need to find out more information about Moss before deciding whether the board acted appropriately in keeping the superintendent onboard.
This is Felton-Montgomery’s first run for political office.
She is a retired educator, serving 40 years as a teacher and district administrator in schools in Washington, D.C., New Jersey and New York. She has lived in Beaufort County for three years and has two sons. She serves on the board of the Mitchelville Preservation Project, is secretary of the local chapter of Delta Sigma Theta and is a member of the local League of Women Voters.
Roth, 84, is a staunch supporter of Moss.
Under Moss’ direction the district’s five high schools have achieved at least an 80 percent graduation rate for the first time, and the district was also highest in the state in ACT scores, Roth said.
He also pointed to Moss’ ensuring that each student has an electronic tablet, and that the district has added two new schools to accommodate student growth.
“This is a guy that accomplished more than any other superintendent in the history of this county, and yet people are doing their best to remove him,” Roth said. He added that Moss has “suffered an unusual amount of abuse.”
Roth also believes he has been mistreated after an article concerning his comment about Orischak.
“The ‘hot chick’ thing was a joke,” he said. “JoAnn is about 45. I guess she’s got three grown kids and they’re in college. I’m 84 and she’s 45. From my standpoint of view, she’s a hot chick. It was a joke. But it turned out to be in bad taste. … The whole article was designed to inflame and beat me down.”
Roth is retired, having spent a career in advertising and television programming. He has also served as a bank chairman and has served on the Town of Hilton Head Island’s Planning Commission. He was a founder of Main Street Youth Theatre and represented Hilton Head on the Southern Beaufort County Planning Committee and the Southern Beaufort County Corridor Review Board. He has lived in Beaufort County for 20 years and has four children.
Bush’s decision to not seek re-election has drawn four political newcomers to the race for the District 9 seat: Christopher Epps, Bill Fletcher, Bridgette Frazier and Christina Gwozdz.
Epps, 33, said Moss needed to be fired for the board to restore the public’s confidence.
“To move forward, even though he’s done some great things for education in the area, we kind of need to move on from him and find somebody new,” he said. “… From there, we just have to build from that, and step-by-step gain back the confidence of the people. … The majority of the people I speak to say that he needs to go.”
Epps believes the school district can serve an important role in economic development by ensuring that students are better prepared for the workforce so the area can attract high-paying jobs.
Epps has served on the district’s anti-bullying task force and wants more done to teach students and teachers how to better combat it. He wants students to learn more life skills, such as how to balance a budget, pay taxes and other such tasks they will have to perform when they’re on their own.
He’s also concerned about how teachers in the district are treated and paid.
“We need to start standing up for some of our teachers,” he said.
He also believes the district focuses too much on standardized testing. “We’re not actually teaching them how to learn,” he said of students.
Epps is an architect and has served on the town of Bluffton’s Historic Preservation Commission and the boards of several nonprofit groups. He is a member of the Bluffton Rotary Club and the Historic Merchants Society.
He has lived in Beaufort County most of his life. He and his wife have one daughter.
Fletcher, 48, believes the main issue facing the board is bridging the gap of trust between it and the public. The district needs to move forward from the Moss controversy. But since the board has already decided not to take action against Moss, a new board member wouldn’t be able to change that, he said.
“I don’t think an incoming board member … would really have the clout or the understanding of all of the issues to make a determination or a recommendation for his dismissal,” he said.
He did say the district under Moss’ leadership has made “undeniable and verifiable improvements in the performance of our students over the last five years,” including increasing on-time graduation rates.
He believes, though, that the board needs to make greater strides to meet with the community and discuss its plans in greater detail. It should also make a sincere apology concerning the Moss controversy.
“It’s going to take an overture by the board to the community to say, “We screwed up. … Let’s mend the fences. Let’s move forward.”
Fletcher has lived in Beaufort County for 18 years and is the president of Universal Mortgage Services. He is active in the local chapter of Business Network International. He and his wife have four children.
Frazier, 33, also sees the need for the school board to work to restore the public’s trust.
“I don’t think they’ve done necessarily all that could have been done,” she said.
The board should effectively communicate how it would prevent a similar controversy and what the next step would be if another ethics violation occurred, she said.
Frazier was an English teacher at Battery Creek High School before she resigned to run her own catering business. She said the district needs to do more to address the academic struggles of minority students who have fallen behind. She advocates less teaching to standardized tests and greater focus on its reading programs, giving more one-on-one attention to struggling students.
“There’s really not any freedom to teach the kid in a way that’s going to engage them,” she said.
She also wants to reduce the high teacher turnover rate and do more to foster the arts in the schools.
Frazier was born and raised in Beaufort County. She returned in 2012 after serving as a teacher in West Palm Beach, Florida. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the Bluffton Community Center board and the Bluffton MLK Observance Committee. She is married and has three stepchildren.
Gwozdz, 58, is concerned about a lack of dialogue between the school board and the community since the Moss controversy.
“The community has lost trust in the board and the superintendent because of this issue,” she said.
She doesn’t believe the board has done anything to address Moss’ ethics violation. As to whether Moss should be removed from his position, she said, “It’s like closing the barn door after the horse is gone. It’s long after the fact.”
Gwozdz is concerned that the proceeds from a proposed 1 percent sales tax would all go for building needs and none toward operational costs.
“If we’re going to have children who are prepared for the next level — whether it be college, going into the job market, going to trade school, whatever it is — they have to have that instruction and academic performance,” she said. “It’s not going to be the building that does that for them.“
She also believes the district needs to put more effort into outreach programs to help close the achievement gap between black and white students.
Gwozdz is an ear, nose and throat doctor, and said her experience as a physician could help the board improve its community relations.
“Every day what I do is listen to people, gather information, fact-check, make decisions based upon that, and that’s basically what I would do as a board member,” she said.
She has lived in Beaufort County for 27 years. She and her husband have three sons. She is a founding owner of the Outpatient Surgery Center of Hilton Head, president of the S.C. Society of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, and a representative of the S.C. Medical Association’s House of Delegates.