Charleston clergy announce a seventh school board member secretly met with superintendent candidate

Provided Eric Mack

The call for six Charleston County School Board members to resign grew to seven Wednesday as more questions arose about the transparency of the board’s search for the next top educator.

The Rev. Nelson Rivers III and Charleston School Board member Michael Miller clarified Wednesday afternoon that board member Rev. Eric Mack was among a group of board members who met privately with former Horry County Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait before she was named as a superintendent candidate in March.

Miller revealed on Monday that six of the school board’s nine members had met with Postlewait outside of a formal interview prior to her being announced as a candidate in March, saying the search process was tainted. Mack brings that number to seven.

Rivers along with other clergy raised concerns at a press conference Tuesday that the initial six board members, who are white, met with Postlewait at the exclusion of the board’s three black members, including Mack.

Mack didn’t return phone calls or emails from The Post and Courier on Monday or Tuesday seeking comment about Postlewait and declined to comment when reached by phone on Wednesday. Later, he said in an email that he did attend an “invited meet and greet” with Postlewait. He offered no other details and said he had no other comment.

Rivers said Wednesday that he had reached out to Mack prior to the press conference Tuesday but Mack didn’t respond until Tuesday night when he met with Rivers and Miller.

Rivers, who is the vice president of religious affairs and external relations for the National Action Network, said he and other clergy still stand by their statement that any board members who met with Postlewait should resign and that the superintendent search has been compromised and should start over.

“Our concern always was the process,” Rivers said Wednesday.

Rivers didn’t raise issues of race Wednesday except to say that he and other clergy became concerned race was a factor based on information from Miller that the three black board members were excluded.

Board member the Rev. Chris Collins said Wednesday that Mack didn’t say anything during a closed meeting last week when Miller raised the question of which board members may have met with the superintendent candidate. The issue of race, Collins said, is irrelevant, saying the problem is one of ethics.

“White or black, it’s wrong to do it — period,” Collins said.

Postlewait did not return a phone call Wednesday seeking comment about any contact she may have had with Charleston school board members.

School board member Todd Garrett, who is white, denied Wednesday that race was a factor in the meetings with Postlewait. Garrett said Monday he was one of the group of board members who met with the former Horry County superintendent but insisted there was nothing wrong with getting to know a potential candidate.

“The idea that there some racial tint to it is completely incorrect,” Garrett said. “It’s about doing our due diligence to try to learn more about a potential candidate that we were told from multiple sources would be a top notch superintendent if Charleston County could get her. Board members should all do their homework to ensure that we hire the best candidate possible to lead our district forward.”

Former Charleston school board member Gregg Meyers said Wednesday that he feels the conduct of the Charleston board has created an awkward situation for the next superintendent.

“It detracts from the credibility of the person, whoever it is they ultimately hire,” Meyers said.

Meyers, who served on the school board from 1996 to 2010, participated in the hiring of two superintendents during his tenure, including a national search in 2003 that brought in the late Maria Goodloe-Johnson. Postlewait, Meyers said, applied for the post back then, noting she was a “very strong candidate.”

But the board’s actions, Meyers said, have hurt Postlewait’s or any candidates chances of a smooth transition.

“There’s a way you can use the hiring process to enhance the superintendent’s presence and credibility and the board is letting that opportunity slip through their fingers,” he said.

It’s unclear whether board members broke any open meetings laws, an issue Rivers said he would seek to have investigated by the S.C. Attorney General’s Office. A spokesman for the state’s Attorney General’s Office confirmed Wednesday that a complaint regarding the Charleston County School Board had been filed and that the matter is under review.

There is very little oversight of school board conduct during superintendent searches. John Emerson, the Charleston County School District’s attorney, said there is no school board policy on how to conduct a search. And Dino Teppara, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education, said the hiring of school district superintendents is “completely a local decision and process.”

Linda Hanson, president of Illinois-based educational search firm School Exec Connect, which conducts superintendent searches, said it’s not unusual for school board members to nominate candidates they think would be a good match for the school district.

Where it can be tricky, Hanson said, is when a majority of board members discuss or meet with candidates in a setting that might violate freedom of information laws. Hanson said in her 20 years of conducting superintendent searches, she’s never dealt with a situation where a large number of board members met independently with a potential candidate outside of a formal interview.

“That’s generally not the way most search firms would have set the process,” Hanson said.

Consultant William Symons, who works with the national search firm BWP & Associates, which is running the search for the next Berkeley County superintendent, said there’s nothing inherently wrong with school board members meeting with a potential candidate as long as it is done within the legal requirements for transparency. Symons said a board could choose to have one or several board members meet with a candidate as part of the interview process.

“They can meet whomever they want, whenever they want, as long as they comply with the law,” Symons said.

Scott Price, executive director-elect for the S.C. School Boards Association, which is assisting in the search of the next superintendent in Charleston, said his organization has not talked with the board about how to conduct themselves during a search.

Price said their conversations so far have focused on advertising the position and selecting candidates. The association will likely talk about the interview process with the board during a Thursday meeting where they will evaluate the candidates who have applied for the position.