Horry County school board sees school construction emails in secret

St. James Intermediate School

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) -The secrecy of Horry County’s over-budget, delayed, $220 million school construction project continues.

This time, in a discussion closed to the public last April, school board members saw emails between Robbie Ferris, the CEO of school-builder First Floor Energy Positive, and Keith Powell, an attorney who worked on behalf of the district.

The district won’t explain the contents of the emails or why they were seen in secret. It also won’t explain the timing; why did board members suddenly need to see these emails?

Most board members didn’t respond when we asked about the emails. Others refused to talk about the documents. “We were in executive session. I’m really not allowed to discuss. You know that,” wrote board member David Cox.

The only attempt at an explanation came from board member Sherrie Todd, who voted in favor of First Floor’s contracts, but she wouldn’t share details. She told News13 she was initially “surprised” by what she saw, but she said she’s no longer concerned after receiving more information.

The public hasn’t been given an opportunity to reach its own conclusion. The district, so far, has refused to release the emails and other documents, citing “attorney-client privilege.”

The school board has the power to release the records. But board members stalled any final decisions on the documents by voting in May to hire a third-party legal firm to review Freedom of Information Act requests.

Three months later, the district and school board often hide behind that review when questioned about records. However, they refuse to say what’s being reviewed or who decided what’s being reviewed. They won’t say when the review will be completed. They won’t disclose how much the review will cost.

Board chairman Joe Defeo provided the only indication of what will not be released to the public: his own emails with the attorneys. He declined to say who decided his emails wouldn’t be released and whether the third-party attorneys reviewed his emails before the decision.

Defeo’s emails may answer more questions about the project. As reported by News13 in July, attorneys for Horry County Schools documented Defeo giving “demands” and making “edits” to school construction documents, despite his claims of limited involvement in the project. The attorneys’ records released so far don’t explain Defeo’s “demands” and “edits.”

Instead, the stalling forces the public to take Joe Defeo, who has given at least one contradictory story to News13, at his word when he explains his “demands” (he says he never used the word ‘demand’) and “edits” (he says he doesn’t remember his ‘edits’).

In the case of the emails seen secretly by the school board, the public only has an explanation from the school builder Robbie Ferris.

Ferris suddenly changed how he answered our questions when we asked about his communications with Keith Powell, the attorney who worked on behalf of the school district and helped write some of the documents that set the project guidelines.

Ferris explained repeatedly what he “would have” done. With other topics covered during an hours-long interview and school tour, Ferris said what he did or didn’t do.

“I can’t tell you what I sent to Keith Powell or if I sent him anything,” Ferris said, although he indicated communication would be the “normal course of business.”

Referring to a document that set guidelines for the construction project, Ferris said, “My goal would be to have the RFP written in a way that was demanding and very rigorous. That gives me an opportunity to provide the building that I want to provide.”

Robbie Ferris, First Floor Energy Positive

After repeated questions, Ferris shared what he did: “I was pointing out things that needed to be defined.” And then he shifted back to explaining what he would’ve done: “My goal certainly would’ve been to encourage him to define things like energy positive and to make sure that if energy positive is important, that it become a scoring criteria.”

He noted the construction document didn’t use his definition for energy positive, but he said he was very happy with the document. He also claimed two other companies that competed for the job “didn’t come close” to meeting the requirements of the document.

“I wasn’t trying to exclude anyone else in any comment that I would make,” Ferris said. “What I was trying to do was make sure that the RFP was rigorous enough that the school district got what they thought they were getting.”

For now, the public has no choice but to trust Ferris’ story and board member Sherrie Todd’s comfort with the documents.