Suit against Wake County school board fails

Staff WriterMay 15, 2010 

— The Wake County school board majority will move forward with plans for neighborhood schools after a judge dismissed a lawsuit Friday that contended that prior votes were illegal.

The board is set to give final approval Tuesday to changing the student assignment policy to remove all references to socioeconomic diversity in favor of making students' living close to school a priority. The one potential roadblock was a lawsuit that contended that the prior votes were illegal because of allegations that the board had violated the state's Open Public Meetings Law.

But Wake County Superior Court Judge Bill Pittman ruled that the school board is taking reasonable measures to accommodate the large crowds at its meetings.

"It was a frivolous lawsuit and truly not about the Open Meetings Law," said school board chairman Ron Margiotta. "We are bending over backwards to accommodate the public."

Margiotta said there are no plans to move Tuesday's meeting out of the regular location at the school district's main administration building at 3600 Wake Forest Road in Raleigh. He said that a ticket policy will still apply and that any overflow seating will be accommodated in meeting rooms on a separate floor.

A group of Wake County residents, aided by several civil rights groups, had filed a lawsuit last week accusing the board majority of trying to stifle public participation by not moving recent meetings that it knew would draw large crowds. They had asked Pittman to throw out votes against the diversity policy on March 23 and May 4.

"The board has taken actions that clearly have the intention and effect of curtailing public attendance," said Swain Wood, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, at a court hearing Friday.

The crowds at board meetings have sharply increased since December, with often rancorous public opposition to the ruling majority. Starting with the meeting March 23, the school system began requiring tickets for seats in the boardroom. School officials had cited concerns raised by the fire marshal for the ticketing.

The crowd March 23 overflowed into the hallway and outside the building. Angry high school students and other protesters began chanting, leading to the arrest of three, none of whom are current Wake students.

But the school board's lawyers told Pittman it would be impractical to move the meetings to larger locations such as a high school auditorium. They said school officials have taken reasonable steps, such as expanding time for public comment, allowing WRAL-TV to use the district's equipment to broadcast the meeting online and creating overflow rooms to watch the meeting on a video screen.

"The statute is not designed to vest rights in every individual to be in the room to watch the proceedings," said attorney Kieran Shanahan, who was hired by Margiotta to represent the board in the lawsuit.

Wood said it's unlikely his clients will appeal the dismissal.

Barbara Garlock, a parent who was one of the plaintiffs, said she's disappointed that the lawsuit was dismissed. But she was pleased that Pittman found that some of the school system's practices, which it has since changed, were unreasonable.

"It's a partial victory," said Garlock, who lives near Holly Springs.

Even though this lawsuit was dismissed, groups such as the state NAACP have threatened to take legal action because they think neighborhood schools will lead to resegregation by race. The state NAACP is holding a rally Monday night at Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh in advance of the vote Tuesday.

Margiotta said he hopes critics will stop taking legal action against the board that wastes taxpayer money.

"Hopefully people will realize that we're not that bad and would want to work with us," Margiotta said.

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

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