Beaufort County School Board at odds over release of FBI subpoenas

Beaufort County School Board at odds over release of FBI subpoenas
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
River Ridge Academy (Source: WTOC)
River Ridge Academy (Source: WTOC)
Beaufort County voters will vote on referendum in April (Source: WTOC)
Beaufort County voters will vote on referendum in April (Source: WTOC)

BEAUFORT CO., SC (WTOC) - The latest example of disagreement among Beaufort County School Board members comes in the wake of at least three FBI subpoenas.

Several board members are against the district's decision not to release those documents to the public, including members of the media.

The board is balancing being transparent with the public and following the requests of the U.S. Attorney. Board officers said prosecutors explicitly asked them not to release them. With another $76 million referendum on the ballot in two months, some board members said releasing the subpoenas is a no-brainer.

At least one board member said the subpoenas sent to the Beaufort County School District revolve around the construction of River Ridge Academy and May River High School.

Some members said the decision not to release the subpoenas was made by board officers without input from the whole board.

"We elect people to be officers to carry out certain functions for us but not to make decisions for us," said board member, John Dowling.

"It could've been simply solved by taking a vote in open session to approve or disapprove the release, and then that would've been put on the board as a whole," said Joseph Dunkle, another board member.

The board's secretary, David Striebinger, said he is in favor of keeping them private because of an email directly from prosecutors asking them to keep them private.

In a statement explaining why the requests for the FBI documents were denied, the board said because of the open investigation, the request is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The statement went on to say: "It is impossible to reconcile our promise to cooperate fully with the investigation if we take an action that investigators have recommended we not take."

"Experts in the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act are saying that their justification is a stretch and the public to a large degree is saying 'let me see the subpoenas," Dowling said.

The district said they have been assured they're not the subject of the investigation. Dunkle said that's even more reason to release them - especially when you consider the referendum vote coming up in April.

"If it has nothing to do with us, I don't see what we're trying to hide, especially when we have a referendum coming up asking the voters for $76 million,' said Dunkle. "I feel that transparency is the best way to convince voters that we're doing what's right and spending their money wisely."

Dowling said federal investigators filed a third subpoena this week. The school district spokesman said he is not aware of that. Another board member, Dr. Christina Gwozdz, also supports releasing them and disagreed with the way board officers made the decision. Board Secretary Striebinger says he wants to keep them private because of the explicit request from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

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