New documents detail why school district attorney was fired

Newly obtained documents paint a very different picture as to why the Charleston County School District’s staff attorney was fired in November.
Published: Jan. 11, 2023 at 2:57 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 11, 2023 at 8:08 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Newly obtained documents paint a very different picture as to why the Charleston County School District’s staff attorney was fired in November.

In a letter dated Nov. 24, 2022, Mercedes Pinckney Reese laid out a laundry list of issues with Superintendent Don Kennedy’s decision to hire outside co-general counsel to lead the district’s legal department. Pinckney Reese concluded that letter by saying she believes she would be fired by shining light on the issues.

The district “parted ways” with her on Nov. 29, disputing the allegations, citing a personnel issue as the reason behind the firing.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, a copy of the termination letter from the superintendent to Pinckney Reese was obtained and it depicts a much different situation.

“After reviewing evidence of your work performance, I have determined that you are not satisfactorily performing the duties set forth in your job description for staff attorney,” the letter begins.

Kennedy lays out a number of failings that he says have led to further legal headaches for the district. Among the issues he says, Pickney Reese:

  • Failed to cooperate with the new general counsel.
  • Failed to understand the staff attorney role.
  • Did not support the superintendent.
  • Approved letters from the school board to expel students that led to further legal action.
  • Accepted subpoenas on behalf of district employees without proper authority.
  • Gave unsound/unsupported legal advice to the school board.
  • Failed to educate herself on K-12 issues.
  • Came to important meetings unprepared.
  • Failed to keep the superintendent informed of legal issues.

The letter cites a peer review done by Alice Paylor, the attorney hired by the district as co-general counsel. Paylor’s review references an interview with Pinckney Reese in which the staff attorney apparently admitted to not executing many of the required responsibilities of the position.

“Furthermore, you told them that your role was to be impartial, when, in fact, your job is to advocate for the best interests of the District and to support the Superintendent,” the letter reads. “I feel no support from you.”

Kennedy also accuses Pinckney Reese of giving poor legal advice.

“In recent weeks, over the objections from Ms. Paylor’s office, you approved letters from the board to “expel students” that did not conform with the notices sent to these students,” the letter reads. “Two legal actions were brought yesterday highlighting these discrepancies. Due to your failure, the District must now address these appeals in court. You have made unsupported determinations and have provided unsound legal advice that hinders the district in personnel matters.”

After receiving the termination letter, Pinckney Reese sent a response rebutting the accusations. In that rebuttal, Pinckney Reese disputes the concerns one by one. She says she attempted multiple times to receive performance feedback from the superintendent without success.

“In the one year you have been superintendent, I received no feedback from you,” Pinckney Reese writes. “If you had taken ten minutes to mention these concerns to me, I could have easily addressed them with you, my supervisor.”

Two of the most serious accusations in the termination letter center around accepting subpoenas for school employees and approving expulsion letters.

“The student discipline outcome letters that my office sends reflect decisions made by the county board; it is the board’s decision that cannot be altered by my office,” she wrote, adding expulsions are usually appealed regardless.

“Attorneys accepting subpoenas on behalf of clients is a common legal practice,” she wrote. “The subpoenas you reference were sent by a law firm addressing employees in their official capacities of the district. The cover letter from the attorney was also addressed to me. This avoids disruption at the schools by having the servers come to the district office regarding district matters.”

Pinckney Reese also addressed education saying she attended Council of School Attorneys training/seminars and attended the South Carolina COSA and SCSBA training sessions.

Pickney Reese summarizes by saying feels the district’s dismissive response to her concerns has “smeared” her name and is “an attempt to destroy my credibility”.

According to her contract, her termination is reviewed by the school board. The district says the review was handled during the Dec. 12, 2022 board meeting. There is no public agenda item suggesting the review took place, but there was an executive session in which board members spoke behind closed doors to discuss a “personnel matter.”

Pickney Reese’s attorney, Nancy Bloodgood, says that the review never happened. She says she received an email from the administration on Dec. 13 saying, “we are in the process of retaining a hearing officer for her appeal and will set a date for that soon”.

“The bottom line is that any administrative remedies have been exhausted per CCSD, which allows us to go to court,” Bloodgood says.