Berkeley Co. School Board Chairman releases 39-page statement on former superintendent’s termination
BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - The new chairman of the Berkley County School District, Mac McQuillin, is giving his reasoning as to why the former superintendent was fired.
“To begin, I acknowledge that the failure to offer reasons for the action at the recent Board meeting could have created the perception that we were not being fully transparent with the public,” McQuillin says. “That is a legitimate criticism, but I want to assure the public that we have nothing to hide.”
The Berkeley County School Board voted Nov. 15 to part ways with Deon Jackson 16 months after he started. Jackson was fired after a 6-3 vote. Board members Yvonne Bradley, Dr. Crystal Wigfall and David Barrow voted against his termination.
“The rationale of our action was not fully explained during open session of the meeting because the public discussion of personnel matters is fraught with legal risks that potentially expose the District to liability that is ultimately borne by taxpayers,” McQuillin says. “In fact, legal claims have previously arisen directly from statements made about District employees in Board meetings. Because of these legal risks, we wanted to handle the discussion of Mr. Jackson’s termination cautiously to limit the District’s legal exposure.”
McQuillin says they had limited discussion about the employment action out of a desire to avoid embarrassment to Jackson and minimize disruption to the District.
“After the personnel matters were added to the agenda, I reached out to Mr. Jackson, days prior to the meeting, to inform him of the possible action and to request that he consider resigning and working towards an amicable resolution with the District,” McQuillin states. “Mr. Jackson never responded to my request. Unfortunately, it appears that he coordinated with others to ensure that his termination would play out in public regardless of how it would affect the District, its employees, parents, and students.”
McQuillin states while they wish Jackson would have chosen a different path, they realize the public deserves answers, and the public interest in getting information about his termination outweighs the legitimate legal concerns that led to our more cautious approach to discussing this decision at the recent meeting.
McQuillin says the reasons that motivated the newly elected Board members to transition to new leadership can be summed up simply.
“We lacked trust and confidence in Mr. Jackson to lead the District,” McQuillin states. “It is suffice to say that no superintendent can effectively lead without the support of the elected officials entrusted with overseeing our schools. The most important job of any school board is to appoint a superintendent that can put students on the path to academic success. The members voting to terminate Mr. Jackson found him lacking in this regard.”
McQuillin claims since Jackson took over as superintendent, the academic performance of Berkeley County schools has declined.
“Recently reported data indicates that the District performed below the state average in all areas except in the End-of-Course English I assessment,” McQuillin continues. “In 2022, thirteen schools rated below average in academic achievement and four rated unsatisfactory. Given the caliber of our teachers and the talent and skills of our students, these results are disconcerting.”
McQuillin says while the cause of the academic decline can be debated, there is no debate that deliberate action is necessary to reverse the trend.
“We simply cannot risk our children’s academic future on the hope that things will get better by adhering to the status quo,” McQuillin states. “For this reason, among others, we believed that the District needed different leadership. And Dr. Anthony Dixon’s skills, talents, and experience reveal that he was uniquely qualified to lead our District’s students to academic success.”
Charleston County Schools named Dixon interim chief of schools three months ago in August, a new position created by the district at the time. He served as Chief of Academics and Innovation and Chief of Secondary Schools for Berkeley County Schools the two years before that. Dixon sent his resignation letter to Charleston County School District Superintendent Don Kennedy, Deputy Superintendent Anita Huggins and Chief Human Resources Officer Bill Briggman, the morning after he was elected as the new Berkeley County superintendent, according to the email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Dr. Dixon, who previously worked at CCSD, was described by that district as a ‘visionary with demonstrated results’ who has been recognized ‘for his high-impact and transformational leadership,’” McQuillin states. “These qualities and experience make Dr. Dixon the right choice to turn our schools’ academic performance around.”
McQuillin says in addition to wanting to reverse Berkeley County School District’s academic decline, the members of the Board voting to terminate Jackson did not have confidence that he could perform the job consistently with the values they cherish because of actions taken during his leadership over the past year and a half.
“Perhaps most significantly, the District’s relationship with agencies entrusted with protecting children from abuse and neglect have deteriorated during that period,” McQuillin claims. “As a Board, we fully expect that our administration will work cooperatively with law enforcement and child protection agencies to protect our most vulnerable students and to prosecute those who would abuse and exploit them. Unfortunately, the cooperation that we expect has recently turned adversarial.”
McQuillin says as an example, the District’s response to a recent SLED investigation into sexual crimes allegedly committed by a School Resource Officer at Stratford High School has likely damaged the district’s relationship with SLED and raised questions about the professional judgment of the former leadership, including the former superintendent and former legal counsel.
The SRO assigned to Stratford was charged in August with sexual exploitation of a minor student who attended Stratford.
McQuillin says the level of cooperation offered by the district into that investigation was lacking, he explains the reasons below.
- In response to the investigation, at least one high-ranking District employee was instructed by District leadership not to talk with SLED.
- When SLED requested a chain of emails between the principal of Stratford and the SRO, the District’s former legal counsel refused to provide them unless SLED issued a subpoena for them. The purported reason for this position was that the emails were educational records protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act; however, there is judicial precedent indicating that such emails are not considered protected educational records.
- After SLED interviewed school employees, the District’s former legal counsel, with the approval of Mr. Jackson, wrote an email to SLED Chief Mark Keel, accusing SLED of causing the District to violate federal law, “browbeating and intimidation,” and trying to “take down the district” based on nothing more than “rumors.”
- The District’s response to SLED’s investigation prompted Chief Keel to defend his agents’ actions. In his response, Chief Keel identified factual inaccuracies in the District’s letter and called the allegations unfounded and having “no validity.”
McQuillin adds they had learned the District’s relationship with the South Carolina Department of Social Services had become so frayed that DSS was on the verge of filing civil litigation against the District to enjoin the District’s practices with respect to DSS investigators having access to interview students who are alleged to be the victims of child abuse and neglect.
“The District, under Mr. Jackson’s leadership, had become so stubborn on this issue that DSS was contemplating legal action and was prepared to seek investigative warrants from the family court to get access to students in District schools,” McQuillin states. “However, as a result of the recent change in leadership, legal action has been avoided, and the District will be cooperating with DSS in the future to ensure that it can effectively investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect without unnecessary interference from the District’s former leadership.”
McQuillin goes on to say, “it is simply unconscionable that District leadership allowed our relationships with key law enforcement and child protection agencies to deteriorate to this point. We, as a Board, should expect that our District’s leadership should be fostering cooperative relationships with the agencies responsible for investigating child abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Unfortunately, the District’s actions under Mr. Jackson’s leadership harmed rather than strengthened those relationships. Similarly concerning is the fact that Mr. Jackson failed to advise many Board members of these issues.”
McQuillin denies that the decision to terminate Jackson was made in a meeting – whether in person, on the phone, virtually, or otherwise – prior to the Board meeting on Nov. 15. Some board members have questioned the ethics of the decision.
McQuillin claims Jackson was not the first choice for superintendent in 2021 of four members of the Board who were re-elected and voted to terminate him.
“When new members were recently elected to the Board, there were one-on-one discussions about the possibility of a change in leadership,” McQuillin says. “There is nothing illegal about those discussions. In fact, such discussions outside of formal meetings are necessary for any school board to effectively govern. To suggest otherwise or pretend that other Board members who disagree with our recent decision never had similar discussions outside of a meeting is simply naïve and disingenuous.”
McQuillin restates there was no meeting that occurred in which a decision was made to offer the position of superintendent to Dr. Dixon prior to the meeting on Nov. 15. McQuillin says when it became clear through one-on-one discussions that a change in leadership was likely desired, he reached out to Dr. Dixon to gauge his interest in the position.
The statement from McQuillin comes as a group is asking the Governor Henry McMaster to investigate the firing of Jackson.
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