Friday, April 12, 2024

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School board avoids Open Meetings Law violation during special-called meeting; won’t discuss budget

Alamance-Burlington school board members avoided a potential violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law Friday afternoon, after Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr. challenged officials over whether the meeting’s agenda, announced two days previously, could be expanded to include budget issues the superintendent wanted to raise but which not a part of the original purpose for the meeting.

Instead, the board members stuck to their original plan to hold a special-called meeting for the purpose of entering into closed session to discuss “confidential personnel” matters and to confer with their attorney – reversing a Thursday morning announcement by superintendent Dr. Dain Butler that he would be presenting a recommendation to use $4.6 million in federal stimulus funds to save jobs and programs that he’d said on February 2 would be eliminated due to a projected $3.2 million budget deficit.

Boney had sent Butler and school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves a letter late Thursday evening, outlining his objection to the expansion of the agenda beyond the original meeting notice that the board had published Tuesday.

A revised meeting agenda posted on the school board’s website Thursday afternoon – reflecting the recommendations that Butler had outlined in a letter to all ABSS staff that morning – included an agenda item to include a discussion about the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

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Boney pointed out in his letter to the school board chairman and superintendent, objecting to the improper last-minute expansion of the agenda:   “According to the meeting notice distributed by the school system, under your signatures and dated February 20, 2024, the purpose of tomorrow’s meeting is: “to consider confidential personnel information . . . and to consult with the Board’s attorney . . . .”

“Subsequently, on Thursday, February 22, an email was sent out quoting the superintendent as saying, ‘I plan to recommend a [revised budget] proposal to our Board of Education on Friday, February 23, at our 1 pm special called meeting.

“That notice,” Boney added, “also included the statement,  ‘I am also recommending that ABSS return $250,000 back to the County fund balance. I will seek their approval on this as well,’ with an implied time frame of doing so at the same meeting.

“However,” the newspaper’s publisher wrote, “I am unaware of any provision in the North Carolina Open Meetings Law that allows a unilateral change in the agenda beyond that which was properly noticed as being the purpose(s) of the meeting.  In particular, there has been no notice, with 48 hours notice, adding additional item(s) for tomorrow’s meeting.”

Citing a publication by the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, Open Meetings and Other Legal Requirements for Local Government Boards, Boney pointed out a legal opinion by the School of Government, which frequently advises public bodies across the state, “The statute requires the notice to specify the purpose of the meeting. Public bodies should be careful when conducting special meetings not to discuss or take action on matters not included in the scope of the notice.” [Emphasis added in Boney’s original letter.]

“As a practical matter, it also seems wholly unnecessary to add such an agenda item inasmuch as the school board already has a regular meeting scheduled for Monday night, February 26, 2024; there is no urgency to discussing or acting on this Friday when it can be handled Monday,” Boney wrote in his letter of objection to Butler and Ellington-Graves.

School board members can and do occasionally amend their agendas for regularly-scheduled meetings, Boney acknowledged, adding, “I find no exemption from the state’s Open Meetings Law that would allow this proposed expansion of the agenda of the Friday, February 23, 2024 special meeting.”

“I want to stress the severity of this potential violation of the Open Meetings Law,” Boney wrote in outlining his objection to the last-minute addition to the agenda expanding the purpose of the special-called meeting.  “Perhaps it should also be emphasized that in the event the school board were to proceed with a discussion or action on subject(s) not encompassed by the meeting notice, as suggested by the superintendent, and it were subsequently successfully challenged in court, a judge may consider declaring any action taken by the school board to be null and void.”


Board to stick with original purpose(s) for closed meeting

Ellington-Graves responded to Boney’s letter of objection Friday morning, acknowledging that the school board’s attorney “notified us last night of the same concern [about the expansion of the agenda without adequate notice],” and Butler had notified the board Friday morning that the original agenda would remain as previously announced.

“The agenda item for open session [a discussion about the budget] will be added to Monday’s agenda to ensure compliance with open meeting law,” Ellington-Graves elaborated in her email to Boney.  “Today’s meeting will proceed with closed session business only as initially posted.

“Thank you for the alert,” the school board chairman added.  “As always, I appreciate the accountability.”

Shortly after 1:00 p.m. Friday, school board members voted 7-0 to enter into closed session, as originally scheduled, without discussing any of the recommendations that Butler had outlined in the letter he sent to all ABSS employees Thursday morning.

School board vice chairman Donna Westbrooks, who has previously said that she babysits a grandchild during the work week, was not physically present in the school board’s meeting room but joined the special-called meeting by phone and voted to enter closed session.

An ABSS policy allows board members to participate in meetings three times per calendar year for a limited number of reasons, including illness, inclement weather, lack of childcare.  The same policy, adopted at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic on March 4, 2020, also allows school board members to participate in closed session discussions, providing that he or she assures the “the board…no other person is able to hear, see, or otherwise participate in the closed session from the remote location.”

ABSS had elaborated Friday morning that at least part of the personnel discussion was to be over appointing an interim chief finance officer to replace Kim McVey, who retired suddenly last Friday.


Newfound millions

In this letter to staff on Thursday, Butler said the school system had identified $4.6 million in unused federal funds that would be enough to avoid the reduction in force (RIF) that he had previously announced. He also said the school system would return the $250,000 that commissioners had allocated earlier this month in hopes of forestalling the rifs.

“This recommendation will allow employees to remain in their current positions for the rest of this school year,” Butler told the staff. “No job losses, months of employment, or salaries will be impacted with this new plan. All programs will currently remain in our school district, including Dual Language programs in grades K-8.”

The one previously undiscussed change Butler did highlight was the need to close the Alamance Virtual School at the end of the current school year.  “This school was originally designed as a response to COVID-19 using ESSER funds,” Butler explained, “which meant it was intended to end when these funds expire in 2024.”

“The current principal,” Butler elaborated, “will be reassigned to an open principalship in the summer, and all virtual teachers will be assisted in being assigned to a school with a vacancy that matches their teaching license for next year.”

Butler did not specify the fact that the principal of the Virtual School, Rebecca Marsh, is the wife of school board member Chuck Marsh.  She had been elevated to that post in June 2023 (she had previously been an assistant principal at South Graham Elementary) after his election in November 2022.

” They will all be notified of this change,” Butler said, “if the Board supports this plan. This will allow all students and staff to remain at the Alamance Virtual School for the rest of this school year.

About a dozen parents and students gathered outside the central office on Friday afternoon to protest the proposed closing of the virtual school option.

In her letter to Boney, Ellington-Graves said the budget-related items that Butler had wanted to add to Friday’s agenda – the change in the RIF, the return of the $250,000 to the county, and the closing of the Virtual School – would instead be added to the board’s Monday night agenda for its regular, monthly meeting.

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