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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

Editorial: Buy it or not, Berkeley board's explanation for firing is a refreshing change

BerkeleySuperintendentFired

Clockwise from upper left, Berkeley County School Board Chairman Mac McQuillin makes a motion to fire Superintendent Deon Jackson, seated next to him; Mr. Jackson leaves the meeting, members of the audience walk out in protest, and Mr. McQuillin discusses hiring Anthony Dixon as the new superintendent. Screenshots

Some will no doubt scoff at the Berkeley County School Board’s claim that it fired Superintendent Deon Jackson because of declining test scores, disputes with law enforcement and lack of transparency, seeing it as pretext for an action the just-sworn-in board wanted to take for political reasons that had nothing to do with education.

Frankly, we don’t know enough to draw a conclusion on that, and we won’t unless or until Mr. Jackson responds to the explanation provided last week by new Chairman Mac McQuillin. That means we also don’t know yet whether the board majority just put the district on the hook for perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars for unilaterally terminating Mr. Jackson's employment.

But if the allegations hold up, the firing might very well have met the for-cause requirement that we assume was in Mr. Jackson’s contract, although typically “cause” needs to be established in a formal proceeding, not a news release, and before the firing occurs.

More importantly, Mr. McQuillin’s explanation meets the moral requirement (which should be made a legal requirement) that boards tell the public why they fire high-ranking employees — and especially such crucial employees as school superintendents. That means voters will be able to judge for themselves whether the new board is off to a good start or whether they made a terrible mistake on Election Day.

We still believe the board should have given some sort of explanation when it acted. Although Mr. McQuillin says the board was being careful to avoid a lawsuit, it would have been easy enough to say the board wasn’t satisfied with the schools’ academic progress, was disturbed by some disagreements with law enforcement, did not believe the district has complied with the letter or spirit of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act under Mr. Jackson’s leadership and would provide a detailed explanation later.

But as jarring and disrespectful as it was to spring this firing on everybody without explanation, the fact is that this is the first school board we can recall that has actually explained its reason for parting ways with its superintendent since doing that became a routine occurrence across South Carolina. Note for example that the Charleston County School Board never even acknowledged that it forced out Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait nearly a year ago, much less why. And we don’t expect an explanation now that all but one of the members responsible either chose not to seek reelection or were defeated this month.

So while we’re admittedly grading on a curve, we have to give the new Berkeley County School Board credit for exceeding the standards set by numerous other school boards.

And frankly we’re encouraged that Mr. McQuillin’s explanation includes such a hearty embrace of the concept of open government. We’re not referring to his implication that he was putting the school district at some legal risk because he believes the public has a right to be provided an explanation; we don’t buy the argument that the statement puts the board at legal risk, unless it turns out that the claims are untrue. Rather, we’re referring to the role he says the district’s failure to comply with public records requests played in the decision.

His statement said one of the three reasons for firing Mr. Jackson was his failure to “demonstrate a commitment to transparency that the public deserves,” specifically citing the administration’s refusal to provide reporters with records relating to the demotion of a school principal, its refusal to provide documents about allegations of sexual misconduct by district employees and its attempts to charge more than $40,000 to fulfill another records request. He noted correctly that “Taking these types of positions suggests that the District has something to hide, when in fact we should be an open book.” The district, he wrote, “should endeavor to conduct its business in the open and not hide issues of employee conduct, whether good or bad.”

Talk, of course, is cheap; we would note, for example, that the district’s communications director still has not so much as acknowledged our Nov. 17 request for a copy of Mr. Jackson’s contract. But another thing we can’t recall is a school district even giving us anything more than vague platitudes about transparency, all the while misrepresenting what the state’s open meetings and public records laws require and allow. So we look forward to the Berkeley County School Board setting a new standard for open government. We’re sure we’re not the only ones who will be watching to see how well it lives up to the implicit promises in Mr. McQuillin’s statement.

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