Wake board's boldness draws criticism

The whiz-bang approach of the new Wake schools majority strikes some as rash; freshmen say they are fulfilling pledges.

Staff WritersDecember 3, 2009 

— Wake County's new school board majority sent a message that they're serious about carrying out their promises, but their aggressive efforts to push through sweeping change have drawn complaints from opponents and questions about whether they skirted state sunshine law.

Without telling other members ahead of time, the new majority introduced eight items on the spot Tuesday calling for major changes such as ending busing for diversity, weekly Wednesday early dismissals and mandatory year-round schools.

"People wanted to know we're serious," said Chris Malone, one of four new board members who were sworn in Tuesday. "It was strong action by the board to let them know we meant what we promised."

All eight initiatives were the result of a series of private meetings in the past month between the four new members and the new board chairman, Ron Margiotta. Those meetings also included members of private groups that Margiotta declined to identify. Members of the new majority defended their private meetings, saying they didn't violate state mandates because they had yet to be sworn in.

But one sunshine law expert said the new coalition violated the intent of the Open Public Meetings Law, which says a majority of a governmental board can't meet privately as a group to conduct official business.

"It's sad," said Cathy Packer, a media law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. "They should be doing the public's business out in the open. They were violating the spirit of the law."

Packer said the new board members probably didn't violate the law because theyweren't in power before Tuesday. But she said they could have notified the public they were meeting in case people wanted to attend.

Malone said they met before Tuesday because heading into the meeting unprepared would have sent their supporters a bad message.

"It's not illegal," Malone said. "We needed to be prepared. I had nightmares about walking into the meeting not being prepared."

But Wake County Attorney Scott Warren, who advises the county commissioners, another countywide elected body, said he would have counseled its members against meeting privately on issues before taking office.

"I always err on the side of caution," Warren said. "I would never advise my board, whether they had taken office or not, to meet as a majority. I look at things legally and what makes sense."

Slower pace promised

Margiotta said the new majority wouldn't be holding private meetings in the future.

Former chairman Kevin Hill, who was booted from his post Tuesday, said Wednesday that he was surprised by the demotion and by the on-the-spot introduction of eight agenda items during a marathon session.

"Having spoken personally to each of the incoming board members and reading and listening to their comments since the election, they all were very adamant that they were looking to make thoughtful decisions, to come in and move slowly, to make data-based decisions," Hill said. "I believe the way business was conducted last night ran counter to all their public comments."

Malone and Margiotta said they'll move more slowly in the future, putting items on the agenda before the meetings start. But new school board member John Tedesco said the new ruling coalition's actions Tuesday should have surprised no one.

"We said we are going to bring forward change, and nothing we did was outside of the realm we promised,"Tedesco said. "Nobody all of a sudden said, 'Tomorrow, paint every yellow school bus green.'"

Arrogant or forthright?

During Tuesday's board meeting, Hill questioned whether the new majority was acting as arrogantly as members claimed the old board had been behaving. Margiotta said they were only doing what they had promised.

"Let's show the public we're going to respond to what they've been asking for all this time," Margiotta said. "That's the opposite of arrogance."

Some supporters of the new board said they had no problem with the tactics, given the urgency of the issues.

"We finally have some school board members who listen to the parents and do what needs to be done," said Margaret Matuszewski, a Knightdale parent. "I support them 100 percent!"

Just as congressmen pass hundreds of pages of legislation without reading them, the school board can pass new measures quickly, Matuszewski said: "Why should we be concerned about a little school board resolution? I still support the new members of the board."

But another supporter, Holly Springs resident and Wake parent Todd Dyches, didn't like the way the new majority operated Tuesday. He said members in the minority faction should be given the courtesy of adequate time to read and consider motions before them.

"I agree with the platform that Tedesco and all those other members voted on - I want to see more community schools," Dyches said. "But you ... can't do it in an underhand motion."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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