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School board sets Oct. 9 as deadline to apply for vacant seat

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Alamance-Burlington school board members voted 6-0 – after a nearly 1½-hour discussion – to set October 9 as the deadline to apply for a vacancy created by the April 23 resignation of longtime school board member Patsy Simpson, who moved out of state.

The unanimous vote concluded a protracted discussion during the school board’s work session Tuesday afternoon, in which freshman board member Dr.  Charles Parker outlined a lengthy application process that would conclude in December with the swearing in of a new board member.

Parker pressed his fellow board members on the need to solicit input from the community through a survey that would be posted on the ABSS website, asking respondents to pick a preferred candidate.  Parker also suggested that the board require prospective candidates to submit a letter of application and a biographical sketch; record a five-minute video speech; and appear before the board to answer questions.

“Maybe we have a meeting where we pick the top two or three [applicants],” Parker explained in outlining his proposed application process.

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Parker then suggested that school board members could whittle candidates’ applications (or letters of interest) to a handful of finalists during their work session on October 10.  Those candidates selected would appear before the school board on October 23 to “give a five-minute speech to the public”; and a survey would be posted on the ABSS website to poll the public about their preferred candidates, as Parker envisioned the process.

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The board would then receive the results from the survey on November 14 “and vote to fill the seat,” Parker explained, and the candidate with the most votes would be sworn into office at the December 4 meeting.

“I tend to think is very similar to” gathering public feedback during the superintendent search prior to the hiring of ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler, said school board vice chairman Ryan Bowden.  “I said [at] the July retreat the best thing and most nonpartisan thing we can do is not fill it; I hold true to those things, but I do realize some of my colleagues would like to see that seat filled.”

A state law that governs vacancies on school boards whose members are elected on a nonpartisan basis stipulates: “All vacancies…by death, resignation, or other causes shall be filled by appointment by the remaining members of the board, of a person to serve until the next election of members of such board, at which time the remaining unexpired term of the office in which the vacancy occurs shall be filled by election.”

“I like everything Dr. Parker said,” opined school board member Chuck Marsh, who wasn’t physically present for the meeting but participated in the discussion and voted by phone.

“I’m concerned we don’t want to make this a rally inside the proceedings…you know, clapping and going crazy like they have in the past,” Marsh said, apparently referencing Parker’s suggestion to have selected candidates appear before the board on October 23 to give five-minute speeches.

However, the process outlined by Parker was met with repeated pushback from board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves and board members Dan Ingle and Donna Westbrooks.

“The seat has been vacant since April 23,” Ellington-Graves said.  “We have had lots of community engagement over the past five months,” she added, referring to numerous community members who have spoken during the public comments period at multiple at the “evening” school board meetings held each month, many of whom have urged the appointment two-time former school board candidate Seneca Rogers of Graham.

For his part, Rogers had submitted a letter of interest for the vacant seat during a brief application period that the school board later suspended, after Simpson announced she had changed her mind and would remain on the board.  Simpson had previously advocated for Rogers to be appointed to serve out the remainder of her term, which expires in November 2024.

Simpson briefly rescinded her stated intention to resign at the board’s work session on April 4, when the other six board members were unable to agree about what sort of criteria and process should be used to fill the vacancy.  “I value my seat, I value my voice, and people are looking for what I bring to this board, and they want to make sure my replacement will have the same values,” Simpson said at the April 4 meeting.  “I am not vacating this seat until I get to know the criteria this board has established.”

The four-term school board member, however, made her resignation final on April 23, citing emergency throat surgery that had caused her to reconsider her service on the board.

During this week’s discussion, the school board chairman urged her fellow board members to move forward with filling the vacancy.  “I would like to see us able to make some decisions by the October 23 meeting,” she said.  “I think having that empty seat is a disservice, not only to us as board members, but also to students and families.”

“I’m happy to open the applications today, as part of the larger agreement,” Parker responded.  “If we needed to let candidates do the speeches between meetings, we could do that; if we would like some time for other media to cover that, we could do that.”

Westbrooks said that, while she isn’t opposed to conducting a survey, she feels people should come in and voice their opinions publicly, at school board meetings.

Parker insisted that a survey would capture a “percentage and depth of the responses,” as opposed to a seeming groundswell for one candidate who “might have a very large Facebook reach,” versus others who rely less on social media to promote themselves.

“In appointing a new board member, everything is 100 percent an open session, public record [process],” interjected the school board’s attorney, Adam Mitchell of the Tharrington Smith law firm in Raleigh.

Parker said he feels it’s important to have “a place where we can provide information in a way that’s equitable between candidates, on the board website, I think.

“It’s getting input about specific people who are interested,” Parker explained.  “I think a survey where we ask about specific people, I think that’s an important piece of the process…I would like to have the candidate information in a couple of different formats.”  Parker, at one point, suggested that perhaps the staff could record the candidate videos, devise the survey, and post it on the ABSS website.

“I’m not really sold on the whole video piece of it,” Ellington-Graves responded.  “I think we’re making it too complicated, but obviously I support the majority of the board.”

“I think we need to get it filled, post haste,” said Ingle.

“We had two great candidates that weren’t selected to be on this board,” Ingle added, referring to Rogers and Avery Wagoner.  Rogers and Wagoner came in fourth and fifth – behind Ingle, Marsh, and Parker – in the November 2022 school board race, with 17.17 percent (23,295 votes) and 12.34 percent (16,738 votes) of the vote, according to official election results.  “Both of them are very active in the community; we could simply bring them to a meeting, question them, select one of the two, and move on.”

Parker subsequently introduced a motion that called for the six current school board members to select finalist candidates on October 10; “collect a bio and written statement”; and to have candidate videos recorded during the meeting on October 23, which would be then posted on the website along with a survey.

Parker’s motion failed 3-3, with Bowden, Marsh, and Parker voting in favor.  Ellington-Graves, Ingle, and Westbrooks voted against.

“Basically we are having a de facto election by the people who placed every one of us in office to make these decisions,” Ingle concluded.

Another motion passed, 6-0, setting the deadline to submit applications (or letters of interest) for the vacant seat as 5:00 p.m. on October 9.  The board was unable to agree on the other parts of the selection process that Parker had proposed.

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