The superintendent of the Berkeley County School District resigned Friday, the latest in a series of upheavals that have included the sudden departure of its chief financial officer and a political makeover of its school board.
Brenda Blackburn’s resignation was announced after a special School Board meeting in which members met for 2½ hours behind closed doors. It also comes a month after the district learned of a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into embezzlement from the district’s accounts.
Blackburn, 69, did not attend the meeting. She had about 28 months left on her contract.
Board members declined to comment afterward, with several saying only that the board is "moving forward."
"We gotta do what we gotta do," said Frank Wright, who, as a board member for nearly 20 years, has seen the district through a handful of superintendent searches.
In a statement released by the board, Chairwoman Sally Wofford said, "Just as our teachers rise every day to meet the challenges of our students, this board is committed to rising to the challenges facing the district in a straightforward and transparent manner."
The board has faced major challenges as of late. On Feb. 7, longtime Chief Financial Officer Brantley Thomas, 60, was fired amid allegations that he redirected $382,252 in district money to his personal bank account between July 2012 and last December. He has not been charged and the investigation is still ongoing, officials said Friday.
School officials said Thomas cashed 10 district checks and put the proceeds in his personal account, and three of those 10 instances occurred under Blackburn’s watch. Believing there may be more missing money, the board in February hired Virginia-based accounting firm Cherry Bekaert to do a forensic audit.
The board named Chief Administrative Officer Deon Jackson, 40, as its interim superintendent. A 15-year veteran of the district, Jackson started as a teacher and assistant football coach at Goose Creek High School. His accolades include the district's 2009 Assistant Principal of the Year award while he was at Timberland High and its Principal of the Year in 2014 award for his work at Cane Bay Middle.
On Friday, the board also hired the Raleigh, N.C., consulting firm of Harding Parker and Associates to "provide leadership and expertise regarding the operations of the school district." The firm will conduct the search for a new superintendent.
The firm's chief operating officer is Anthony Parker, who served as head of the Berkeley district from December 2008 to January 2011, when he unexpectedly resigned. He was given $121,000 in severance pay at the time.
In August 2015, board members called Blackburn the “best fit” when they unanimously chose her after a six-month search that had to start over after one of the initial finalists dropped out. At the time, Blackburn was the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Christiansburg, Virginia.
She replaced Rodney Thompson, who rose through the district's ranks to become superintendent in 2011. Thompson was released from his contract in 2015 after he was indicted that April on an ethics charge in connection with the district’s Yes 4 Schools campaign. In December, he pleaded guilty and was given the maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine, suspended to a year’s probation and a $2,500 fine.
Blackburn’s first day with the district was Nov. 1, 2015, and her original contract was through June 30, 2018, with a $210,000 annual salary plus benefits that included an $8,400 contribution to an annuity and an $1,100 monthly automobile allowance.
Like most standard superintendent contracts, Blackburn’s could be terminated by mutual agreement.
In October, some questioned the board’s motives when they gave her annual evaluation just two weeks before the election. Five of the nonpartisan board’s seats were up and three incumbents – Kent Murray, Kathy Schwalbe and Phillip Obie – were not seeking re-election.
But then-Chair Jim Hayes said it was the right thing to do because the new board members would not have a connection to the superintendent. Hayes and board member Julius Barnes lost their seats in the election, which saw voters choose four candidates aligned with the county’s conservative Republicans.
Board member Mac McQuillin, who now serves as vice chair, gave Blackburn her lone negative review that night. Obie and Sally Wofford, now the chairwoman, did not say how she measured up, and the remaining six said she exceeded expectations, praising her initiative to improve rural schools and her communication skills.
The board voted 7-2 for a one-year contract extension, with McQuillin and Wofford casting dissenting votes because they believed her evaluation should occur after the election.
The board also voted 6-3 to give Blackburn a 4 percent, or $8,400 raise, which was consistent with the raises given to teachers this year. The raise was retroactive to July 1. McQuillin, Wofford and Obie cast the dissenting votes on that.