Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pay ends Friday for two Pickens, South Carolina school employees

The School District of Pickens County Tuesday announced that the suspended Liberty High School principal and bookkeeper have now both been suspended without pay.

After the Pickens County school board voted Monday night to stop paying the school district’s employees, the board did not name the employees. Also, the payment of the two employees continues until Friday.
Tuesday’s statement does not name Liberty High School Principal Randy Gilstrap or bookkeeper Buea DeNard by name, but by job title. Both are charged with embezzlement.
According to the brief statement from the school district, “Legal steps are still being taken regarding the employment of the Liberty High School principal and bookkeeper. While those steps are in process, the district’s intent is to change each employee’s status to ‘suspension without pay’ effective Friday, April 29.”
Gilstrap and DeNard, both of whom have worked for the Pickens County school district for more than a decade, were charged this month with taking money from the school and the district. Their futures were discussed in an hour-long closed session Monday that included several other items.
Gilstrap is charged with embezzling more than $10,000 from Liberty High School and from the school district between November 2008 and February of this year. DeNard is accused of embezzling less than $10,000 between 2009 and February of this year.
When the school board came out of the closed session Monday, members voted unanimously to “sustain the superintendent’s decision to suspend the employment of a professional employee of the district.”
The board’s motion cites a section of South Carolina law that deals with suspension of educators, and officials said that portion of the law would apply to those accused of criminal acts.
The board’s Monday night motion says that Superintendent Henry Hunt is authorized to “discontinue the pay of the employee upon notice to the employee.”
The worker may also have the right to a hearing on the matter. Hunt said he and the board are following the state Fair Employment and Dismissal Act.
Lawyers for the charged workers are communicating with the school district’s attorneys.
School district spokeswoman Julie Thompson said Columbia lawyer Jane Turner is representing the district. Calls were not returned from her on Tuesday.
In the meantime, school board members say they cannot say much.
“We are going through a series of legal hurdles at this time,” board chairman Alex Saitta said.
Vice chairman Jim Shelton was equally cautious.
“This is a personnel issue, a legal issue,” he said. “It is really outside the board’s purview.”
Several days may pass before the school district or Hunt issues more public statements about any actions.
“Anything we do, we’ve got to let them know first,” school board member Ben Trotter said.
“There are procedures we have to go through, and what we’re doing now is waiting on them to respond. The ball is in their court, not ours.”
Both Gilstrap and Denard have been suspended with pay since February. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is still investigating.
The state Board of Education has the power to issue a final order after a court verdict, said Jim Oster, director of communications for the board. He would not comment on the Liberty case, but said the board has the power to revoke teaching certificates.
“When somebody’s charged with a crime (the board) typically will wait until the jurisdiction system has run its course before it makes a decision on the educator’s certificate,” Oster said.
The board can suspend a certificate without a formal hearing if a crime places the health, welfare or safety of students at risk. That is not the case in Liberty, he said.
Lori Gwinn, an assistant principal at Liberty High, continues to work as the school’s interim principal.

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