Sunday, December 10, 2023

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School board again delays voting to fill vacant seat


Alamance-Burlington school board members agreed Monday night to again postpone selecting someone to fill the vacant school board seat until their next meeting, a work session, on November 14.

School board members have deliberated unsuccessfully for months over whether, and how, to fill the vacancy created by the April 23 resignation of four-term board member Patsy Simpson, who moved out-of-state.

ABSS initially received 13 letters of interest for the seat, based on copies of the letters of interest that the school system previously furnished to The Alamance News.

One candidate, Danielle Cheek Sellars, was eliminated from the applicant pool earlier this month for what was described as failing to adequately respond to the vacancy notice.

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A second candidate, Denise Saletta of Burlington, didn’t attend the board meeting Monday night to outline her qualifications for and interest in serving on the board, so school board members agreed later in the evening to eliminate Saletta from consideration, as well.

School board members heard five-minute speeches given by 11 of the 12 candidates who had submitted letters of interest by the October 9 deadline and attended after having been invited to speak this week about why they should be selected for the vacant seat.

During a protracted discussion that followed the candidate speeches Monday night, numerous people in the audience vocalized their irritation about the delay in selecting a replacement for Simpson.

School board members later settled on a suggestion to have the ABSS public information office post clips of the candidates’ remarks on the school system’s website, along with each candidate’s interest letter, and each board member’s email address so that community members can submit feedback over the next two weeks.

That decision represented a scaling-back of the methodology previously proposed by school board member Dr. Charles Parker, to post a survey on the ABSS website asking respondents to pick their top candidate.

This week, Parker suggested that each board member could pick his or her top three or five candidates and assign each a number.  As he explained it, each board member’s preferred choice would receive one point; the second choice would receive two points; and a third choice would receive three points.

“Then we add up all the points, right,” and the person with the lowest number of points would be the top choice, Parker said.  “The question is do you want to narrow things today, or leave it up for the two weeks we had talked about?

“I think doing the selection in a couple of weeks is very possible,” Parker added.


‘This has been going on a long time’

However, school board member Dan Ingle urged his fellow board members to go ahead and pick someone to fill the vacant seat.

“I don’t think we need to get too much more complicated; this has been going on a long time. I think we need to simplify it, and that’s it.  We could place all their names in a hat; say, if there are three of us that pick the same candidate, then maybe we vote on that candidate.”

– School board member Dan Ingle

“I don’t think we need to get too much more complicated; this has been going on a long time,” Ingle said Monday night.  “I think we need to simplify it, and that’s it.  We could place all their names in a hat; say, if there are three of us that pick the same candidate, then maybe we vote on that candidate.”

School board member Donna Westbrooks objected, for the first of several times, saying, “It’s very confusing.  You don’t feel like the community has contacted you enough to share their opinions?  I feel like if they wanted to see [the candidates], they would’ve tuned in tonight.  Y’all are talking about throwing things in a hat – I don’t know.”

Westbrooks was unable to persuade her fellow board members to narrow the candidate field by going ahead and ranking their top choices Monday night.  “If you feel that we need to come up with a few questions, maybe we could narrow that pool down to five and invite them back to answer questions.”


Bowden suggests board members can begin vetting candidates privately

School board vice chairman Ryan Bowden suggested that board members could begin vetting candidates privately right away.  “We can do our due diligence and pick up the phone and ask questions.  I’m saying, during this two-week window, we as an individual board member can take it upon ourselves to reach out to any of these folks and have a conversation with them.”

“We can do our due diligence and pick up the phone and ask questions.  I’m saying, during this two-week window, we as an individual board member can take it upon ourselves to reach out to any of these folks and have a conversation with them.”

– School board vice chairman Ryan Bowden

Bowden also asked the board attorney, Adam Mitchell of the Tharrington Smith law firm in Raleigh, who participated in the discussion by phone, whether the board should perform background checks on the candidates.  “Can we do one, or do you think that is worth looking into?” he asked the attorney.

No, Mitchell said.  “I have concerns about that; it is different from an employee,” the attorney explained.  “When the statute says when anybody is eligible to vote and eligible to hold office, I wouldn’t advise it.”

Ingle reiterated his concern about making the selection process too complicated.  “I think we need to decide who would be our top candidate, say who it is, and vote on it.”


‘This has never happened’

Bowden countered, “This has never happened; there is no process.  I think all of us are trying to do our due diligence.  This is the first time in years, from a school board standpoint, that this has happened.  Six people are making the decision for basically 170,000 people – we don’t take that lightly.”

The most recent time that an ABSS school board member resigned was in July 2008, when Mary Alice Hinshaw stepped down approximately two weeks before she and her husband moved to Wilmington.

The State Board of Elections confirmed at the time that the timing of her resignation – within three months of an already-scheduled school board election – provided sufficient time for a special filing period in which candidates could file to serve out the remaining two years of Hinshaw’s term, which was ultimately placed on the ballot for the November 2008 general election.

However, because Simpson’s term runs through November 2024, another attorney from Mitchell’s firm, Eva DuBuisson (who had previously served as the school board’s attorney), told school board members at their retreat in July, “The statute says the vacancy will be filled by appointment.  I don’t think the statute contemplates voting not to fill it.”


Disorderly conduct

School board member Chuck Marsh addressed the frustration that was both evident and audible among a number of audience members Monday night.

“What a lot of people don’t understand that are out in the audience is, we get feedback either way,” he said.  “Not everybody is for one particular candidate…We will get feedback for days on end, ‘please don’t pick that person.’  We will get feedback based on who we’ve heard tonight.”

One audience member asked the board, “Is it the email’s decision, or is it yours?”

That remark prompted school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves to bang her gavel against the dais, warning the audience to simmer down, or be asked to leave.

“We do not allow audience participation,” the board chairman said.  “Can we please set good examples? All of us – or you will be asked to leave.  Last time.”

“It’s not an easy decision for any of us up here,” said Marsh.  “We’re trying to make the best decision for the kids with the vacant board seat.”


Ingle repeatedly urges board to vote, without success

“I’m prepared to make a selection tonight,” Ingle responded.  “We had two outstanding candidates who ran with us; that’s where I’m at right now,” he added, referring to two of the current candidates, Seneca Rogers and Avery Wagoner.

Rogers and Wagoner had run for one of three open seats on the board in November 2022, and came in fourth and fifth, respectively, out of six candidates. Rogers received 23,295 votes (17.17 percent); Wagoner received 16,738 votes (12.34 percent) but lost to Ingle, Parker, and Marsh.

During the public comments period of the school board’s latest meeting, several speakers outlined why they think Rogers should be selected to serve out the remainder of Simpson’s term, joining numerous other community members who’ve advocated for Rogers’ appointment earlier this year.

Daniel Ayers acknowledged that there have been two prevailing reasons put forward for why Rogers should be selected: he “would bring much-needed racial diversity to the board”; and he’s the logical choice since he was the next highest-vote getter in last year’s school board race.

“I want to set those two arguments aside,” Ayers told the board, “because there is a third argument that is more compelling, more persuasive: Seneca Rogers is the best candidate for this board.”

Ernestine Lewis Ward also urged the board to appoint Rogers, saying, “My heart would not allow me not to come.  In past years, representation on the board has been one person of African American descent.  It appears you do not want an African American on the board…Think about what you are saying to the African American community.”

Of the 11 candidates who gave candidate “speeches” Monday night, eight are white; three are black.

School board members concluded their discussion by agreeing, by consensus, to post the videos on the ABSS website until their work session on November 14.

“At the work session, [we could] figure out a way to narrow and vote,” Parker suggested.

Mitchell, the board’s attorney, said it’s possible that some arrangement could be made to have the prevailing candidate sworn in “immediately after their appointment,” to be followed by a ceremonial swearing-in at the board’s next regularly-scheduled meeting on December 4.

School board members customarily meet once, for a work session, in November of each year; they do not allow public comments at work sessions.

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