Court to hear Wake schools' appeal

The handling of a packed school board meeting in March will be discussed.

Staff WriterFebruary 21, 2011 

  • The open meetings lawsuit against the Wake County school board is one of two cases that will be heard by the N.C. Court of Appeals beginning at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at 1 W. Morgan St. in Raleigh.

— The N.C. Court of Appeals on Thursday will hear arguments about the outcome of a lawsuit that accuses the Wake County school board of violating the state's open meetings law during its efforts to eliminate the use of diversity in student assignments.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Bill Pittman in May dismissed the lawsuit, which accused the school board of trying to stifle public participation by not moving meetings that it knew would draw large crowds.

Pittman found that Wake had acted unreasonably during March board meetings but said the district had taken reasonable measures since then to accommodate crowds.

Supporters of the old diversity policy, who filed the lawsuit, want the appellate panel to reinstate the case. They also want a preliminary injunction declaring that the school board violated the open meetings law and an admonition against them doing it again.

"The only way someone can be held accountable for breaking the law is to be declared to have broken the law," said Mark Dorosin, a senior attorney for the UNC School of Law's Center for Civil Rights, who will argue the case Thursday for the group who filed the lawsuit. "Having the court recognize that will be important to citizens under the open meetings law."

The school board, while supporting the dismissal of the lawsuit, is asking the appeals court to throw out sections in Pittman's ruling that found that the school system had acted unreasonably. "Nowhere in their Brief do Appellants provide authority for the faulty premise lurking at the heart of their appeal: that each member of the public has an absolute and unfettered right to personally attend every meeting of any publicbody under the Open Meetings Law," Kieran Shanahan, a lawyer who represents the school board, wrote in the appellate brief.

Jam-packed meeting

The lawsuit largely centers around the March 23 meeting in which the school board passed a resolution calling for students to be assigned to community-based schools.

With large numbers expected, school officials announced the day before that the public would not be allowed into the small conference room where the school board holds its committee of the whole meetings. School officials announced that the public could watch the meeting in the main board room via live video, which wound up breaking down during the meeting. A few seats were later opened up in the conference room for the public.

School officials also announced that tickets would be required for seats in the main board room. School officials had cited concerns raised by the fire marshal about crowding at prior meetings.

School officials initially told people who arrived as early as five hours before the meeting that they couldn't leave the building if they wanted to keep their tickets. After complaints, school officials relaxed the policy about leaving the building. Tickets are still required for board meetings.

School leaders also turned down a last-minute request from news organizations including The News & Observer to pay for the costs of relocating that meeting to a larger location.

The crowd overflowed into the hallway and outside the building. Angry high school students and other protesters began chanting, leading to the arrest of three people.

Vindication sought

In the lawsuit, lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that the school board's actions were designed to have a chilling effect on public participation. They say a favorable ruling would vindicate the concerns their clients raised.

"It would have a lot of impact on how the board is perceived and how it operates," Dorosin said.

School officials argued that they had made reasonable accommodations to handle the crowd. But they've also taken additional steps since then such as setting up overflow rooms for people to watch the meetings.

Since March 23, attendance has sharply dropped off at board meetings.

Dorosin said his group still is asking for the original request in the lawsuit - that the March 23 vote on the community schools directive be declared void.

He said a successful ruling could require the board to revote on all student assignment votes since then but he said that's not the group's primary focus now.

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

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