Governor, mayor weigh in on Charleston School Board questions

Gov. McMaster and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg are calling on the Charleston Co. School Board to address publicly the outcry involving the superintendent.
Published: Oct. 3, 2023 at 2:06 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 3, 2023 at 7:01 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg are calling on the Charleston County School Board to address publicly the outcry involving the Charleston County School Board’s decision to place its new superintendent on administrative leave.

The decision came in a 5-4 vote last week to place Dr. Eric Gallien on paid leave while an investigation is conducted. The vote to suspend Gallien was carried out by Carlotte Bailey, Ed Kelley, Keith Grybowski, Leah Whatley and Pamela McKinney. But the board did not explain the reason for the investigation at the meeting. The four remaining board members, Darlene Dunmeyer-Roberson, Dr. Carol Tempel, Courtney Waters and Daron Lee Calhoun II called a news conference Monday to address the board’s recent actions and call for more transparency.

McMaster said the state has “broad authority” to intervene in certain circumstances but said he was not sure that the disagreements underway in Charleston qualified just yet.

“But the school district needs to follow the law and the Freedom of Information Act is very clear,” he said. “It does not look to me like the school board has done that and when things like that happen that allows conversations to go on, allows things to get worse and people lose confidence in the school board.”

He said such controversies can even hit the state in the pocketbook, suggesting that business leaders who are looking for a place to invest money could see such fighting and keep the state from presenting “the right image.”

“We don’t want to lose that advantage, so I would urge them to follow the Freedom of Information Act, cooperate, do whatever is required,” he said. “And if it gets worse, I think the law would allow me to ask the inspector general to take a look but I don’t think we’re at that point, yet.”

Tecklenburg released this statement Tuesday:

Late yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with Chairwoman Pam McKinney, and to express my concerns about several recent and seemingly capricious school board actions, including the suspension of Superintendent Eric Gallien, the refusal to appoint Michelle Simmons as chief academic officer, and the dismissal of members of the district’s Health Advisory Committee. Taken together, these actions, and the lack of basic transparency surrounding them, have created a crisis of confidence among our principals, teachers, parents, taxpayers and state legislators, at least two of whom have now called for formal investigations on a bipartisan basis.

That’s why, today, as both the mayor and a resident of the city of Charleston, I’m respectfully calling on the CCSD Board of Trustees to schedule an immediate public meeting where they can explain and debate these actions in open session and begin working together to restore confidence in the board and its decision-making.

More than 220 years ago, when Charleston and the nation were still young, President George Washington warned in his farewell address of the dangers of factions, and of the unique threat they represent to our form of government. In recent days, we have seen those dangers play out on our county school board. I believe it’s time for everyone involved to step back, remember that we serve all our citizens, and begin mending the broken bonds of trust between our school board and the citizens, parents and students it serves.

Gov. Henry McMaster called on the Charleston County School Board to follow the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Dissenting board members call for Gallien to be reinstated, answers to other questions

The four board members said they want the board to trust the superintendent’s hiring decisions and are sure taxpayers do not want to continue paying Galien to stay home. They accused their fellow board members of causing a “week of intense public backlash, confusion and community outrage when they voted to place Gallien on paid administrative leave pending an investigation and provided no reason.”

“The reason behind the investigation, as best I could explain without breaking confidentiality, is that an email complaint claiming a hostile work environment based solely and largely, I should say largely, on work responsibilities in CCSD,” Dunmeyer-Roberson said, providing no additional details on the specifics of the complaint.

“First and foremost, we need to support our superintendent. We need the board members to come back and reinstate Dr. Eric Gallien so he can do his job,” Calhoun said. “You’ve heard us say this before: We were not elected to be the superintendent. I do not want to be a superintendent. That was not my qualification. He has the qualification.”

Calhoun said he is confident the investigation will not turn up any wrongdoing.

The four board members also questioned their colleagues’ decision not to hire Michelle Simmons as the district’s chief administrative officer and why six members of the district’s Health Advisory Committee were removed by the policy liaison who also reassigned nine of the positions without discussion from the entire board.

Gallien’s contract began on July 1, when he became the highest-paid employee in the Charleston County School District’s history with a salary of $275,000. After the first year, his salary will increase by 2% annually.

Board Chair Pamela McKinney provided the following statement regarding Tuesday’s announcement from Gov. McMaster.

Debate, differences of opinion, and deliberation are a healthy part of any democratic process. Given the size of the Charleston County School District (CCSD) and the vast number of students and families it serves, we welcome and honor it. Regrettably, this board is fractured to such a degree that our differences of opinion, everyday occurrences in any governing body, are being used to villainize certain Charleston County Board of Trustees members falsely.

We have remained largely silent in the past week, hoping our colleagues would come to conduct discussions that promote understanding and empathy rather than exacerbate divisions. Following yesterday’s press conference and various social media posts over the last week, it is clear that they aim to continue the conversation in the public eye, so we are left with no choice but to do the same

The investigation of Dr. Gallien’s actions, alleged by an employee complaint, will comply with district policy. Policy GBEB stipulates that “employees shall not engage in unprofessional behavior toward other employees, students, parents, or others. Particularly, supervisors shall not treat employees under their supervision in a belittling, demeaning, or disrespectful manner, including verbal and/or written statements, especially within the hearing of students, other employees, or others. Such behavior is considered harassment and must be reported to the proper supervisory authority and the department of human resources.”

In the case of the Superintendent, the proper supervisory authority is the Board of Trustees. There was a unanimous vote to open an investigation. The majority of the Board voted to place the superintendent on paid administrative leave for the duration of the investigation. The decision to do so was made to preserve the investigation’s integrity. Our genuine desire to do so should be evidenced by the commitment to obtaining a firm only after consultation with Dr. Gallien’s attorneys and should be further supported by our expediency in hiring the firm, which has already occurred.

Also, Policy GCF affords that “Chief officer and deputy superintendent recommendations shall be brought to the board for approval.” Our district and its trustees have a long history of voting for or against the Superintendent’s recommendation for Chief Officer and Deputy Superintendent positions. We will share that our recent vote regarding the Chief Academic Officer was based solely on our desire to hire a CAO who possesses a degree and background in curriculum and instruction coupled with varied experience in K-12 settings: elementary, middle and high school. Another factor of our vote was that the Superintendent should bring forth a Chief Officer recommendation to the board once he has interviewed candidates.

The decision to present a new slate of Health Advisory Committee members is not intended to be disruptive; however, the bylaws state clearly that terms of membership are “at the pleasure of the Board.” While we recognize this board is largely split, the slate of members was approved by a majority of the board.

Gallien has not responded to requests for comment on Tecklenburg’s call for a public meeting.