Superintendent sues Charleston County School District

The lawsuit alleges the district has breached his contract, violated board policy and has violated the Freedom of Information Act with an illegal meeting.
Published: Oct. 5, 2023 at 1:00 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 5, 2023 at 11:23 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The Charleston County School District is facing a new lawsuit, but this one is coming from inside. Superintendent Dr. Eric Gallien has filed a lawsuit against the district alleging district policies and the school board of trustees hamper his ability to effectively do his job. The lawsuit alleges the district has breached his contract, violated board policy and has violated the Freedom of Information Act with an illegal meeting.

“Defendant CCSD has ignored its Policies and attempted repeatedly to usurp the authority of Dr. Gallien in order to control personnel and function as the de facto superintendent of the District,” the lawsuit reads.

Personnel Decisions

Since his hiring on June 21, Gallien has attempted to hire at least two new employees, promote a third, and reorganize another position. All of those attempts have been blocked by the school board by a coalition of what the lawsuit refers to as ‘Moms For Liberty backed’ board members. The lawsuit identifies those board members as Carlotte Bailey, Keith Grybowski, Ed Kelley, Pam McKinney and Leah Whatley.

Gallien’s legal team argues his contract gives him the authority to hire and fire staff members without the consent of the school board directly and by countermanding his decisions they are effectively violating district policy that makes him ‘responsible for the operation and management of the district; responsible for the operational organization of the district in all aspects.’

The issue stems from a board directive that was passed on May 18 in which the board voted to restrict the superintendent’s power to make changes to the district organization chart of the central office without approval from the board.

During a special-called meeting on September 21, Gallien attempted to gain approval to hire two administrators he had worked with in Wisconsin to fill interim positions. The board rejected those hires.

Gallien also attempted to promote current Interim Chief Academic Officer Michelle Simmons to the full position at the Sept. 25 meeting. The board rejected that proposal right after they sent him on paid administrative leave.

“On August 16, 2023, Chair McKinney informed Dr. Gallien she would not support his plan to place an existing employee (Michelle Simmons) in the Chief Academic Officer position, and she did not believe a majority of the other Board members would either,” the lawsuit reads.

In a fourth instance, an unidentified “high-level” employee is mentioned in the lawsuit.

“On July 31, 2023, Chair McKinney emailed Dr. Gallien twice about an employee he had wanted to move to a different position, stating, “I perhaps was not clear about [this employee]” and ordering Dr. Gallien to retain the employee in her July 1st position until a Board vote,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit claims Gallien attempted to propose a new job title and description for that employee, but it was rejected by the board and was ordered to restore the employee to the job they had under the previous superintendent.

“This May 18, 2023 Directive seriously interfered with Dr. Gallien’s ability to operate and manage the District, violated the provisions of his employment contract, and contradicted CCSD Board Policies,” the lawsuit reads.

Sept. 25 board meeting and ‘illegal meeting’

On Sept. 11, the wheels were set in motion for Gallien to be placed on leave.

The special called meeting addressed two things: Gallien’s contract, which began July 1, and an undisclosed personnel matter.

“The September 11 special called meeting was to clarify the duties and responsibilities of the superintendent based on the contract,” McKinney said in a release following the meeting. “The executive session discussed these and no motion for a vote evolved.”

No motion was made during that meeting but court documents state a Sept. 21 email from the employee to Gallien and copied to the board saying the employee felt disrespected because she was not given the job duties she wanted.

After saying he would take care of it because it was a personnel issue, Gallien arranged a meeting with the employee for the next day that the employee did not attend, court documents state.

It was after that email that the executive session agenda items were added to the Sept. 25 meeting by general counsel.

“Dr. Gallien was eventually told by the General Counsel the purpose of the added agenda items was to place Dr. Gallien on leave due to the disgruntled employee’s complaint against him,” Gallien’s attorneys said.

Gallien alleges that the five Moms for Liberty-backed board members walked out of the open session and had an illegal meeting following the board’s Sept. 25 executive session.

The video screen behind the board first showed the meeting as adjourned before changing the status to recess after the group “suddenly got up and walked out of the open session meeting.” The other four board members stayed in their seats during the recess, court documents state.

Attorneys for Gallien claim that during the “illegal meeting,” the Mom for Liberty board members voted to appoint Anita Huggins as interim superintendent before the vote to place Gallien on leave had been taken.

Court documents call the meeting a violation of FOIA because it was “not properly noticed, a quorum was present, the public was not allowed to attend, and a vote was taken at this illegal ‘meeting within a meeting.’”

Once the board returned to open session the board voted 5-4 to place Gallien on administrative leave.

“The Moms for Liberty backed Board members then announced that had voted (in secret at the illegal meeting within a meeting) to appoint an Interim Superintendent, and the meeting ended,” Gallien’s attorneys said.

Gallien wants a judge to give him the full authority under his contract to be in charge of the administration and district personnel and to clarify that the board is only allowed to set policy. He also wants a declaration requiring the district to follow FOIA. Specifically, he wants them to cease the practice of polling board members in executive session and from going into executive session to avoid public scrutiny.

He also wants a judge to declare the actions taken on Sept. 25 null and void, ending his paid leave and getting him back to work.

He is further looking to get attorney fees associated with this lawsuit covered by the district.

Gallien’s lawyers declined an opportunity for additional comments.

The school district released the following statement:

We understand media outlets have a responsibility to report what happens in our community and appreciate them reaching out to give us a chance to respond. The lawsuit is being thoroughly reviewed, so we don’t have a comment at this time. However, we do want our community to know school and district staff will not be distracted from our commitment to providing life-changing educational opportunities for every student in our classrooms. We are thankful for the support we have received from parents, guardians, and community members as we focus on student outcomes.

Board chair Dr. Carol Tempel provided the following statement regarding the lawsuit:

Dr. Gallien has the right to use legal means to pursue doing his job. The sooner we get back to supporting education the better it will be for the teachers, students, staff and the community. It’s exhausting to spend so much time and energy pursuing educational justice.