Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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Naming of new high school on hold due to violation of state’s Open Meetings Law


The Alamance-Burlington school board has removed an item from tonight’s agenda, ostensibly to ratify the naming of the new high school under construction along NC 119 as “Hawfields High School,” after Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr. said the so-called “community committee” that is making the recommendation had violated the North Carolina Open Meetings Law.

In a letter to school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves and superintendent Dr. Dain Butler Monday afternoon, Boney pointed out that the inclusion of “parents, community members, and students,” in addition to ABSS staff and central office personnel, made the committee a public body, subject to all of the requirements of the Open Meetings Law, including public notice of its meetings.

This is the proposed logo, including in the school board agenda packet, that members were to have considered Monday night.

The new high school, which will become the county’s seventh, is now under construction at 3368 South NC 119 near the Honda Power Equipment Manufacturing plant in Swepsonville.

Construction of the $67 million new high school is being funded as part of the $150 million bond referendum voters approved in 2018.

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Instead, Boney questioned, “What public notice was given about this committee’s meeting schedule, much less its very establishment?”

“I am unaware,” Boney said in his letter to Ellington-Graves and Butler, “of any public announcement of the appointment of such a committee nor of any of its meetings.

“I find no exemption from the state’s Open Meetings Law that would have permitted this committee to be assembled and meet without any public notice.”

Boney suggested that perhaps school officials had “conflated the makeup of this committee with the authority (pursuant to N.C.G.S. sec. 142-318.10(a)(c)) that allows ‘a meeting solely among the professional staff of a public body’ to conduct business without notification.

However, Boney specified, “the inclusion of parents, community members, and students  clearly transforms this group into a ‘public body’ subject to the terms of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law – and all the more so because of its task to make a recommendation to the school board about the name of the new high school.”

Boney requested background materials on the committee’s deliberations, “In light of the failed process of this committee’s deliberations, we would ask, pursuant to both the North Carolina Open Meetings Law and the North Carolina Public Records Law: to examine and inspect all tapes or video recordings made of each of the committee’s meetings; to examine and inspect any minutes, summaries, or notes taken by anyone who attended the meetings;  and to examine and inspect all correspondence to, from, and between committee members regarding the selection of a name for the new high school.

“The significance of a naming decision underscores all the more the importance of openness and transparency, which the school system should readily have known.

“We would respectfully request that all further consideration by the school board of the high school naming issue – item E2 on tonight’s agenda – be suspended until this information is provided.”

In an initial response to Boney’s letter, sent by email, Ellington-Graves said she was forwarding the publisher’s protest to the school board’s attorney, Adam Mitchell with the Raleigh law firm Tharrington Smith.

In a subsequent email prior to tonight’s meeting, Ellington-Graves told the newspaper publisher, “Mr. Mitchell has reviewed your email and advised the board to remove the agenda item, E2, from the agenda this evening. We will amend the agenda once we open tonight’s meeting.

Ellington-Graves added, “I appreciate the accountability and assure you that transparency is important to this Board and Dr. Butler. Please know it is never the intent of the Board of Education to willfully violate an open meeting law. We will certainly be more diligent moving forward to ensure compliance.”

At the beginning of their regular monthly meeting, Ellington-Graves did, in fact, note the recommendation to remove the high school naming issue from the school board’s Monday night meeting. It was approved 6-1, with Wayne Beam voting against, although he did not express a reason for his dissent.

Members may discuss the naming process, but not the naming itself, later in the meeting.

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