Sunday, October 2, 2022

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Tuesday special school board meeting set on naming new high school after violation of N.C. Open Meetings Law

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The Alamance-Burlington school board Monday night removed an item from its meeting 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.


Read a copy of the publisher’s letter HERE


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 or 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.”

“What public notice was given about this committee’s meeting schedule, much less its very establishment?  I am unaware of any public announcement of the appointment of such a committee or 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.”

Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr.

 

“It was more of an informal thing.”

– ABSS public information officer Les Atkins

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.”


Read the newspaper’s editorial page opinion here: https://alamancenews.com/geesh-who-knew-school-officials-cant-follow-basic-laws/


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 Monday night’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.”

 

Board votes 6-1 to remove vote from their agenda
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.

Beam told The Alamance News Monday night that he had voted against a subsequent, successful motion by school board member Tony Rose to discuss the process for naming the new high school because, in light of the Open Meetings Law violation, he didn’t think the board should discuss the topic at all until a future, properly-noticed meeting.

Rose agreed with Boney’s objection.

“I feel very strongly,” Rose said Monday night, “the board should be the entity that names the school and [that we] should have a discussion.” At the same time, Rose acknowledged that the board had previously authorized staff to work on selecting the new high school’s colors.

Moseley Architects, which designed the new school, conducted an online survey that yielded 1,927 responses and subsequently received input from parents and ABSS staff during a meeting on the Zoom online teleconferencing platform parents in late January of this year.
In February, school board members heard four possible options for the colors (blue and green; blue and teal; purple and yellow; and royal blue and orange) before voting to approve the blue and orange combination.

“That was because of the supply chain issues,” Rose recalled this week.

However, he said Monday night that, if ABSS had established a committee to recommend a name for the new high school, “I’m not aware that this board sanctioned that…that’s news to me.”

ABSS public information officer Les Atkins told school board members Monday night that, after assuming his duties as superintendent in July, Butler had directed him and the principal of the new high school, Eric Yarbrough, to send out a community survey, which Atkins said had been posted on social media and received about 80 responses.

“Rising to the top was Southeastern [High School],” Atkins said Monday night. “Most of them were one person just voting for a particular name. Eric was considering who would be going into that school.” Yarbrough subsequently contacted students and families within the future attendance zone for the seventh high school and asked them to meet at Hawfields Middle School to discuss the suggestions submitted via social media. “It was more of an informal thing,” the public information officer elaborated, adding that the meeting had drawn about 31 people who he said “came from a cross-section of parents and students.”

[Story continues below.]


HERE‘s the full list of votes, from the school system’s Facebook survey, as provided by the school system in response to the newspaper’s public records request.


That meeting was held at Hawfields Middle School two weeks ago, on August 11, based on materials that ABSS furnished this week in response to a public records request by The Alamance News.

That group was hesitant to recommend “Southeastern High School” as the name for the new high school, due to the potential for confusion, Atkins told the board Monday night.

Documents furnished in response to the newspaper’s public records request revealed eight “recommendations from the public.” They included: Southeastern or Southeast Alamance High School (29 votes); Hawfields High School (18); Northern High School (6); Wyatt Outlaw High School (5); Alamance High School (2); Central High School (2); Haw River High School (2); Swepsonville High School (2); Mebane High School (2).

This is the logo for the new high school, which was included in the school board’s agenda packet for Monday night. The colors, orange and royal blue, had been decided by the school board previously.

Fifteen other proposed names commemorating various individuals in and outside Alamance County received one vote each, based on the documents that ABSS furnished to the newspaper.

[Story continues below.]


HERE‘s the full list of votes, from the school system’s Facebook survey, as provided by the school system in response to the newspaper’s public records request.


The committee was made up of 11 ABSS employees, including the PIO and new high school principal; and eight parents, one of whom, Charles Parker of Mebane, is currently a candidate in this year’s school board race.

[Story continues below list of members of the so-called “community committee,” charged with naming the new high school.]


Here’s the list of staff and parents who served on the committee, as provided by the school system.  ABSS refused to identify the number of students, or their names, who were involved in the “community committee.”  It also listed no “community members,” although the agenda packet described to board members that there were some:


An ABSS policy that governs naming of facilities outlines several criteria: that the name shouldn’t be similar to an existing school; that the name may honor a deceased individual who has helped ABSS students succeed through financial contributions or educational leadership; it may be named for an educational leader or historical figure outside Alamance County; and/or the name may specify the geographic locality of the school.

In addition to the group’s recommendation to name it Hawfields High School, other strong contenders included Haw River High and Melville High School, Atkins recalled this week of the discussion at Hawfields Middle School. “Haw River got pushed aside, because although the [mailing] address is Haw River, students may not necessarily feed into that [school],” the PIO said. (Alamance County tax records list the property as being located within Swepsonville’s municipal limits.)

“Did you invite students from all of the schools that would be feeding into that school?” school board vice chairman Patsy Simpson asked Monday night. “It’s already got the reputation that it would be a Mebane/Eastern High School.”

Simpson recalled Monday night that the process for naming the new high school marked a departure from how other schools, such as Highland Elementary and the Career and Technical Education Center, had been named during her four terms on the board. “My reservation is because I’ve been involved with this [process] before,” Simpson said. “It was the board gathering information and eliminating certain names, or whatever…I want all these children to feel that new school belongs to them, so I have a problem. There are some other reasons that I haven’t been able to verify and its relationship with Hawfields Presbyterian Church.

“I’m sorry we’re behind schedule,” Simpson concluded, “but at this point, I’m not comfortable to vote on that.”

[Story continues below quotes from school board members.]


SCHOOL BOARD REACTION:

“Did anyone on this board sanction the existence of this committee?. . . In the haste, we’ve violated the Open Meetings Law. While this board could name this school tonight…we can’t do it based on the recommendation of this committee because it wasn’t legal.”

– School board member Tony Rose

“This board never had a public conversation that I remember. I certainly would love to see more input from our students. I would encourage us re-sending out a very quick survey.”

– SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER Allison Gant

“Tony made a point about it’s this board’s job to make that decision; I get that.  My recommendation would be maybe to let this committee identify the top two or top three [names previously submitted.]”

– SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER Ryan bowden

“The issue is nobody on this board knew about it.”

– school board member wayne beam

“Did you invite students from all of the schools that would be feeding into that school? It’s already got the reputation that it would be a Mebane/Eastern High School. I want all these children to feel that new school belongs to them, so I have a problem.”

– School board vice chairman Patsy Simpson


“I’m not so much tonight wanting to talk about the school name,” Rose interjected. “I’m talking about the process – this is the board’s work. Did anyone on this board sanction the existence of this committee?”

Butler explained, “We’re behind; we need a name. I think it was a very democratic process. I think involving parents and students was the right thing to do. I think the media calling us out was right.”

“In the haste,” Rose responded, “we’ve violated the Open Meetings Law. While this board could name this school tonight…we can’t do it based on the recommendation of this committee because it wasn’t legal.”

“We’re behind; we need a name.  I think it was a very democratic process.  I think involving parents and students was the right thing to do.  I think the media calling us out was right.”—Supt. Dain Butler

For his part, Beam suggested that the board postpone the discussion until its work session in two weeks. “The issue is nobody on this board knew about it,” he said Monday night.

“We are behind on the naming of the new high school already,” Butler insisted. “I believe Mr. Yarbrough has athletic orders that are behind.”

Atkins said the principal “needs to get uniforms ordered – they can take almost nine months. He’s solidifying contracts that need to have a name on them. On the academic side, there’s a push, as well, so we can set up a [school] code and move forward with DPI [the state Department of Public Instruction].” DPI assigns each school system and each public school North Carolina an identifying numerical code for recordkeeping purposes.

School board member Allison Gant said she was shocked “that this board never had a public conversation that I remember.

“I certainly would love to see more input from our students,” Gant said Monday night. “I would encourage us re-sending out a very quick survey.”

Simpson echoed that suggestion. “Most of the kids going to the new high school, I don’t even know if they know what the boundary lines are to have known to participate in the survey.”

School board member Ryan Bowden said this week, “Tony made a point about it’s this board’s job to make that decision; I get that. My recommendation would be maybe to let this committee identify the top two or top three [names previously submitted.]”

School board attorney Adam Mitchell told the board Monday night, “It’s not typically even thought of that this was a public body.” He said that the board could review and discuss the group’s “results,” or “decide not to go with the results of the survey at all.”

Any vote that school board members might’ve been contemplating Monday night, the attorney acknowledged, “would ratify action taken at the not-noticed meeting.”

“When I talk about it being [a] board process, the establishment of the committee is the board’s work,” Rose countered. “Discussion about what the name should be is the board’s work and the vote about what it should be is the board’s work… [We have] struggled with process in recent months. We’re doing good things – we’re just doing them the wrong way.
“The only foul here is not publicly noticing this committee [by issuing a public notice that the committee would meet],” Rose added. “Historically, any time committees have been established for the work of the board, the board has [initiated] that.”

“We want to make sure our friends in the media are aware it was not intentional on our part,” Ellington-Graves said Monday night.

Following a 40-minute discussion Monday night, school board members agreed to schedule a specially-called public forum regarding the naming of the new high school on Tuesday, August 30.

The special-called public forum is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday in the auditorium at the ABSS Central Office and will be followed by a special-called school board meeting immediately afterward, at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the same location, Ellington-Graves confirmed for the newspaper Wednesday.

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