Morello missing many Beaufort County Board of Education meetings

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Morello missing many Beaufort County Board of Education meetings

By RACHEL HEATON
rheaton@beaufortgazette.com
Published Monday, February 20, 2012   |  1059 Words  |  

There have been 10 Beaufort County Board of Education meetings, including two two-day work sessions, since Oct. 4.

Board member Steven Morello has attended one.

He's phoned in to the two most recent meetings, but a new job has prevented him from attending more.

Morello, who represents part of Hilton Head Island, is a commercial truck driver. He took a job a few months ago and was promised a local route. But after training, he was told no local routes were available, he said.

So, when he can, he phones in from Oklahoma or New Jersey or whatever state he's in that week. Board secretary Robyn Cushingberry calls him before the board begins votes.

Sometimes the cellphone connection is spotty. There have been times where the board can't hear him clearly or when Cushingberry has had to call again because the call was dropped.

Morello said he feels he's doing everything he can to serve on the board and represent his constituents. He's still connected by email, which allows him to review agendas and policy proposals. He's in touch with a handful of board members consistently -- most often board chairman Fred Washington Jr.

"It's not the perfect situation, but I'm still catching the votes, and I'm still voicing my opinion," Morello said.

It's not clear how long it might be before Morello is able to regularly attend meetings. He said he hopes to find a local route in his job soon.

MIXED OPINIONS

Board members have a mixed opinion on Morello's absences.

None of them fault him -- he's got to have a job, they say -- but a few worry that he's not contributing as much as he should.

"My feeling as a board member is that you make it to as many meetings as possible," said vice chairman George Wilson. "If I knew I could not be at the majority of the board meetings, I would not stay on the board. But that's my own personal opinion ... I don't want to stir things up between board members."

Julie Bell, who represents part of Hilton Head, said she's felt somewhat strained by being the only active board member on the island. Wayne Carbiener, who also represents the island, has been ill and has participated in meetings by phone since October, though he stays on the line for the whole meeting.

That leaves Bell as the lone Hilton Head board member able to attend meetings at schools, concerts and other events.

"I really enjoy going to school meetings and other things, but it wears you out when there's no tag team," she said. She said she hasn't spoken to Morello about his absences.

"I think his priorities have changed," she said. "I think his priority is his son and he has to have a job.He was very dedicated when he first started, and I just don't see that anymore. I don't mean it as mean. I'm just saying that matter-of-factly."

Morello's son is 11. Morello said since the boy was born, the two have only been apart for a weekend. That's changed since Morello took the trucking job.

Other board members spoke in support of Morello.

"The last couple of meetings, he's been able to join us through technology," Bill Evans said. "It's clear he's made comments via phone and taken a number of votes. He's clearly shown he's informed and listening to our debate. Right now, it appears to me his constituents are being represented."

Washington said he has addressed the absences with Morello.

"I will never publicly chastise members," Washington said. "I think that I have done what I am charged to do with making sure we have the participation of all elected officials. When and if we don't, it's my job to inform them of concerns, and not just my concerns but the concerns of fellow members and their constituents."

THE POLICY

The policy that allows Morello and Carbiener to participate via phone was put in place Sept. 20. It allows members to participate via video or phone conferences if attendance at meetings is prevented by "personal illness or disability, employment purposes or the business of the board, or a family or other emergency."

The policy was approved on a 7-4 vote. Michael Rivers, Earl Campbell, Herbert Burnes and Ron Speaks opposed the measure.

Those same board members supported a failed amendment that would have capped the number of meetings a board member could attend electronically at three a year.

Campbell and Burnes both said last week it might be worth revisiting that idea.

"I don't think you can really get into the meeting over the phone," Campbell said. "That's just my opinion, but I think you have to be there in person."

Attempts to reach Rivers and Speaks were unsuccessful as were attempts to reach board member Laura Bush.

Board members are paid $50 a meeting and are still compensated when they attend by phone.

In Morello's case, because he has only phoned into the voting portion of the meeting and missed other parts, he likely won't be paid, Cushingberry said.

Morello said he hopes to be able to attend meetings in person soon, and is doing everything he can to ensure he's representing his constituents.

"I want to get back," he said. "I don't want to be out here. I'm away from a job I care about. I'm away from my son. I don't like this, and I'm doing the best I can to get back. But in the meantime, I still have to put food on the table and take care of my obligations."

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content:

Superintendent announces Strive to Excel changes, Sept. 20, 2011 (meeting in which the board approved attendance by video or audio conference)