Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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Mon. night school board meeting erupts in chaos

Public comments controversy over SHS yearbook, debate about Critical Race Theory preface to school board member Patsy Simpson storming out of meeting which was cut short after public comments, only 40 minutes.  No other agenda items were addressed.

Alamance-Burlington school board members adjourned their latest meeting at 7:10 p.m. Monday night – 40 minutes after it started, at the close of a customary public comment period that ultimately erupted into a full-blown argument.

The vote to adjourn came hours earlier than usual and before school board members had discussed any of the items listed on their meeting agenda, after a back-and-forth discussion between school board member Patsy Simpson and people who were seated in the audience turned into a shouting match.

Eight people had signed up to speak during the public comments period at Monday night’s school board: five aired concerns about the theme of the 2020-21 yearbook for Southern High School; three others expressed concerns about whether ABSS is teaching students “Critical Race Theory,” a political philosophy that has become increasingly controversial (see related story, this edition).

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One speaker – and a number of people who hadn’t signed up to speak during the public comments period but did so while seated in the auditorium at Central Office – appeared to direct barbs about the yearbook and other criticisms toward the board in general, but Simpson in particular, just before the meeting was prematurely adjourned. One person who spoke during the public comments period described Southern High School’s latest yearbook as enthusiastically supportive of Black Lives Matter, while criticizing law enforcement and the former president (see related story, this edition).

School board chairman Allison Gant told the audience at the outset of Monday’s meeting that the board doesn’t typically respond or ask questions during public comments, in keeping with an ABSS policy.

Once the final speaker of the night had concluded her public comments, Simpson lit into Gant over a passing comment she made about asking the superintendent to review the “yearbook protocols,” as Simpson put it, apparently in response to concerns about Southern High School’s 2020-21 annual.

“This subject matter has been brought before the Supreme Court before,” Simpson said.

“Clearly, students have their First Amendment rights, and I think you – without consulting with this entire board – to ask Dr. Benson to do something to address this is [inappropriate]. We as a full board make decisions as to what we want to do.”

Gant was quick to apologize for asking the superintendent to review the yearbook policy without a full public airing by the school board. “I really apologize to you and the rest of the board for taking the initiative to ask for something, and I will never do that again without consulting the full board,” Gant told Simpson.

Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson – who attended the school board’s meeting Monday night for a scheduled discussion about the annual contracts for school resource officers his agency provides at 12 ABSS schools – rose to his feet, asking the crowd to calm down, as the conversation between Simpson and audience members grew louder and heated. (Several municipal police department officials were also present Monday night because their SRO contracts were on the school board’s meeting agenda; they stood by in an adjoining hallway to comply with distancing guidelines that remain in effect for K-12 public schools.)


“I am speaking,” Simpson responded when several people seated in the audience began directing barbs at her.  “I don’t answer questions at this time, okay,” she said, her voice growing louder.  “Just let me finish what I was saying to you.  To get up and say that we are teaching Critical Race Theory – never has this board discussed any such thing.  I have not heard any such thing, so I think we need to turn off the TVs at this point, because if this board is going to take an action or something pertaining to the curriculum, and we will keep you informed.  That is not anything you need to be concerned about at this point.

School board vice chairman Tony Rose defended Gant, telling Simpson that she, too, calls the superintendent all the time, asking him to look into things. There was no reason for the chair to apologize, Rose said, because she hadn’t done anything wrong.

“I do not want you to speak to me in that manner,” Simpson shot back at the vice chairman.

By this time, she was standing at her seat behind the dais and gathering her belongings to leave the meeting when Rose introduced a motion to adjourn, which she seconded, and passed unanimously.

Despite the sheriff’s attempt at de-escalation, the decibel level continued to rise. Several people in the audience pelted Simpson with comments – and she returned rhetorical fire – as she stormed out of the school board’s meeting room in the auditorium upstairs at Central Office in Burlington. Little of what anyone had said was decipherable.

Meanwhile, school board members have scheduled a special-called meeting for 12:00 noon today (Thursday, May 27) to consider and possibly vote on one of the items that had been on their meeting agenda for Monday night. School board members will consider awarding a contract to Central Builders of Mebane to complete renovations and upgrades at Williams High School that was included in the $150 million bond package that voters approved for ABSS in November 2018.

The proposed contract totals $3.8 million, based on figures that were provided to school board members earlier this week.

The full school board meeting is shown here.  The meeting actually begins at approximately 10:46.  Public comments take up about the first half hour.  Then, at about mark 42:46, school board member Patsy Simpson begins to ask questions of school board chairman Allison Gant.  The meeting is ended at 52:11 after a motion to adjourn had been adopted: https://abss.eduvision.tv/Share.aspx?q=3SfVi13wT7QHrQN8lS40OQ%253d%253d

Go to approximately 42:46 after public comments are finished to see and hear the end of the meeting.

Read the newspaper’s editorial page opinion on the epic embarrassment that was Monday night’s school board meeting:  https://alamancenews.com/attention-board-chairmen-and-mayors-learn-to-use-the-gavel/

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