We express our continual bewilderment at the lengths public officials will go to establish and enable all manner of little specialty advisory committees to conduct the public’s business – albeit without the public’s knowledge, presence, or participation.
We cannot fathom that officials aren’t aware of a basic legal requirements, encompassed in the North Carolina Open Meetings Law, that establishes the general parameters that the public’s business should be conducted in the open – including all sorts of specific requirements, not the least of which is that the public should be informed about the formation and meeting schedule of these advisory committees.
Instead, we have the second local case (that we know of) within the past month in which a conclave of self-selected, or specially-selected, people have gotten together to make a public policy proposal to an elected board – but without even a cursory announcement of the committee’s existence or formation, much less any notice of its future meeting(s).
Instead, the membership of these little cliques just get together, talk among themselves, and make a decision on their recommendation – without one whit of public access. No public oversight. No public notice. And, apparently, no minutes or other record of their discussions or action.
Earlier this summer, it was a charmed in-group put together by Elon town bureaucrats to interview and recommend who should get a $73,000 contract to devise a “downtown master plan.”
The latest example is something referred to as a “community committee” that someone within the school system apparently put together to come up with a name for the new high school – the county’s seventh – now under construction at 3368 South NC 119 near the Honda Power Equipment Manufacturing plant in Swepsonville.
So why should the public, when they finally learn about these committees’ recommendations, have any confidence whatsoever in the result?
All we know is that seemingly out of nowhere a line in Monday night’s school board agenda showed up saying that this heretofore unknown, unnamed, and unpublicized committee was going to make a recommendation on the new name for the county’s seventh high school.
Now, initially we didn’t know who were the members were, or even how many people were in this specially-selected group. But apparently not one of them – especially none of the supposed “adults” in the group – had even a vague notion that perhaps their work shouldn’t be shrouded in mystery or secrecy.
Dare we say it, these practices sound like something straight out of Russia or Communist China – or George Orwell.
“It was very informal,” according to Les Atkins, the school system’s supposed public information officer, in not providing very much information that should be public.
A little Facebook survey apparently drew about 80 responses, from which the committee deliberated on names. Sort of.
Adding to legitimate suspicions around the naming is that the elite panel came up with three recommendations, according to Atkins: Hawfields, Haw River, and Melville.
This is particularly noteworthy since missing from the list altogether was the most frequently-suggested idea (Southeast or Southeastern). Even more irrational was the inclusion of one naming idea in the “final three,” Melville (apparently derived from the township in which the school is located), that got not one single vote, according to the information provided from the school system.
The school system has provided the names of the “adults” who participated in this committee’s one meeting, but neither the number nor names of the students. According to Atkins, “We are protecting student privacy and therefore will not be releasing those names.”
The school system also never provided any names for so-called “community members” that it originally described as included on the “community committee.” Probably just one more exaggeration – read falsehood – included in their propaganda from the outset.
And, just by the way, the county as a whole – not just those children might attend the school – deserves input on the school’s name; after all, they paid for it, in the form of voting for a bond referendum in 2018 and being willing to pay higher property taxes to finance the $67 million school – and $83 million more in other school improvements across the county.
We didn’t originally have any particular beef with the proposed name, Hawfields High School, although its location is a bit beyond what we’ve always understood to be the traditional boundaries of the unincorporated community of Hawfields. The crossroads at Trollingwood-Hawfields Road and NC 119 – where Hawfields Presbyterian Church, Hawfields Community Park, and Hawfields General Store are located – is the heart of the Hawfields community. The school is a mile and more away.
But we’re outraged about the lack of transparency behind the decision, more than any particular name.
What were some of the other names suggested? Initially, no information provided.
Exactly how many people recommended the allegedly favored name of Hawfields High School? Three, four, a half-dozen, hundreds, or even thousands? No idea in the initial information provided to the school board.
Actually, we’re even more alarmed to learn, subsequently, that what little bit of public input was received, via some sort of Facebook survey, was ultimately ignored by the naming committee inasmuch as the most popular name submitted was Southeast or Southeastern.
As it turns out, the whopping number of 18 people suggested Hawfields as the name, while an even larger (though still relatively insignificant) number of 29 suggested Southeast (or Southeastern) High School.
HERE‘s the full list of votes, from the school system’s Facebook survey, as provided by the school system in response to the newspaper’s public records request:
While we’re not real fond of such generic, uninspiring names, they do represent a rather parallel version of existing high schools with directional names: Southern, Eastern, and Western.
It should be remembered, however, that those names were chosen when various elementary schools were consolidated, so the neutrality of the high school names chosen in the late 1950s/early 1960s was to avoid any favoritism toward a particular subset of the new school’s make-up.
Yet, in a sense, that’s exactly what the suggested Hawfields High School name does, perpetuating the middle school of the same name whose students will be feeding into the new high school over other contributing middle schools, primarily Southern.
Pure coincidence, we’re sure, that the singular committee meeting on the high school’s name was held at . . . wait for it. . . Hawfields Middle School.
Our commendations to school board members Sandy Ellington-Graves, Tony Rose, Allison Gant, Wayne Beam, and Patsy Simpson for their roles Monday in trying to rectify the high-handedness and secrecy of the central office bureaucrats who apparently put together this little pow-wow of a “committee.”
When we raised objections Monday afternoon in a letter to Ellington-Graves and superintendent Dr. Dain Butler, Ellington-Graves was prompt to solicit the opinion of the school system’s Raleigh-based attorney, who quickly agreed with the newspaper’s request to pull the item from the agenda.
We’re glad the board chairman rectified this, but we’re wondering how she allowed it to be put on the agenda in the first place.
It appears she knew about it even if most of her colleagues didn’t.
And it raises questions about what else the public might not know about.
Rose and Gant were right in challenging why in the world the school board itself was equally uninformed about the establishment of the committee; Beam, who questioned whether the school board should even talk about the issue when the underlying committee had violated the state’s Open Meetings Law; and Simpson for rightfully raising the question of whether all parents and students feeding into the new school had even been apprised of the pending decision on a new name.
The selection of the name for a new high school is likely to be a long-term, if not permanent, decision. We’d hate to see the new school’s formation marred by the shadow of impropriety in the selection of that name, based on the start it got off to this week.
The school board will start afresh Tuesday with a special-called meeting to vote on the new high school’s name.
Alamance County residents should make their preference(s) known.