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Beaufort County School District superintendent Valerie Truesdale misled the media last fall when she said discipline of an embattled football coach was handled at the school level, according to Hilton Head Island High School's former athletics director, who also says Truesdale tried to cover her tracks.
The accusations were in a letter emailed by Mark Karen to Hilton Head High principal Amanda O'Nan in May. It explained why he wasn't likely to return for a second year as the school's athletics director.
Karen accepted a job as athletics director at Dacula High School in Georgia a few days later and started work there in July.
The district withheld his email in its response to a public-records request by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. However, the newspapers obtained copies from two other sources, and their authenticity was confirmed by Karen.
District officials who handled the newspapers' information request, including Truesdale and spokesman Jim Foster, say the email and its attachments were withheld out of concern for Karen's privacy. They also dispute many of the claims in Karen's letter, including his assertion that the district concealed information from a separate records request by the newspapers last September.
Karen said the information was concealed because it contradicted Truesdale's claim that, to that point, no one had recommended the firing of football coach Tim Singleton.
AD CLAIMS LIE, LACK OF SUPPORT
Karen's three-page letter, written in May as he considered other job offers, thanked O'Nan for supporting him through a trying school year but said his dealings with the district office left him with "a bad taste." Among his concerns were a cumbersome process for purchasing uniforms and equipment, and district foot-dragging that he says prevented him from quickly making a job offer to Singleton's replacement, B.J. Payne.
About half of his letter accused the district -- specifically Truesdale -- of double talk as controversy began to envelope Singleton early last school year.
Singleton was fired in November after a 4-7 season that unfolded as financial and governance problems surfaced in the nonprofit mentoring program he directed at the high school. Strive to Excel ceased operations a few weeks after Singleton was fired as football coach and is the subject of an ongoing S.C. Attorney General's inquiry.
However, Karen said he and O'Nan wanted to fire Singleton as much as two months earlier, in August. Karen claims the coach had ignored a direct order by allowing transfer students whose eligibility had not been cleared to participate in a preseason scrimmage -- a charge Singleton denied.
"Beyond the lack of support, I will always carry with me being lied to directly by Dr. Truesdale that all coaching changes are local school decisions and our consequences given to our coaches are local school decisions," Karen wrote to O'Nan. "Telling the media and the public one thing and telling you and I another thing behind closed doors is not the right way to run a school or a school system."
At the time, Truesdale told the Packet that no one had recommended Singleton's firing.
Karen said his recommendation to fire Singleton initially was supported by O'Nan and Sean Alford, then the district's head of instructional services. Alford has since left for a similar job with Dorchester County School District 2.
However, Truesdale intervened, Karen asserts in his letter: "I will always remember the quote that Dr. Truesdale told you and I that 'none of us (including herself) would have a job tomorrow' if we fired Coach Singleton."
In an interview, Karen said Truesdale made that statement sometime last August, during a conference call in which he and O'Nan were together on one line at the high school. He says Foster and Alford also participated.
O'Nan is the only of the other four to say she remembers the call, however, she said she doesn't remember Truesdale making that statement. Truesdale stopped short of denying she made the statement Karen attributed to her but said she doesn't remember doing so.
Karen said he thinks Truesdale feared community backlash if the school fired Singleton -- a former star quarterback for the Seahawks, longtime assistant coach and just the third head coach in the program's history.
O'Nan and Truesdale both said Singleton's situation required careful consideration, in deference to his deep community ties and the disruption his dismissal would have had on the Seahawk team.
However, both said this week the decision to fire Singleton -- and its timing -- was left entirely to O'Nan.
'CRYING OVER SPLIT MILK?'
Alford said Karen is upset because the district didn't dismiss Singleton as quickly as he wanted. He complimented O'Nan's handling of the situation and said he told Karen last August that he didn't think there was enough documentation to justify firing Singleton.
"Because his recommendation was not taken at that point, it's almost like a crying-over-spilt-milk deal," Alford said last week. "... It wasn't his decision to make. Mark is a great guy. He did some great things for Hilton Head High. But how he's handling it now, it's just not mature."
Alford did corroborate one of Karen's claims, however: Karen indeed had recommended Singleton be fired. Alford also confirmed that the recommendation had been blacked-out in a hard copy of an email exchange between Karen and Alford last August, which was provided by the district in an earlier public-records request.
At the time, Foster said federal law and privacy concerns justified concealing the information. He would not say -- at the time or recently -- whether the redacted material concerned disciplinary action against Singleton, only that the material would affect "employee privacy."
Karen saw things differently: "The redacted statements were not 'personnel issues,' but were cover-ups because statements were in direct conflict of what the district office told the press/public," Karen wrote in his email to O'Nan.
TRUESDALE: 'I WASN'T PLAYING GAMES'
Truesdale said she keeps FOIA requests "at arm's length" and didn't play a role in determining what the newspapers would receive in either of their requests for records.
She also says that, regardless of Karen's opinion about what should have been done about Singleton, if she told the newspapers in September that no one had recommended his firing, she was telling the truth.
"ADs don't make recommendations. I wasn't playing games with you. To this day, I don't have a recommendation from coach Karen," Truesdale said. Such recommendations could only come from O'Nan, Alford and possibly Jackie Rosswurm, the district's head of human resources, she said.
"I want you to understand that when I say 'nobody,' I mean nobody with authority to make such a recommendation has made such a recommendation that I know of," Truesdale said.
O'Nan acknowledged wavering last August about dismissing Singleton and said that might have left Karen with the wrong impression about what she wanted to do.
She also said that while she sought advice from Truesdale and Alford, the decision to let the coach remain -- as well as the subsequent one to fire him -- were hers alone.