Wake County school board members will vote Tuesday on an ethics policy that supporters say will hold members to high standards but which opponents warn could result in witch hunts and the muzzling of dissent.
The revised policy lays out the process by which board members could be reprimanded, asked to resign or be referred to the Wake County district attorney for criminal charges or removal from office. The changes stem back to the leak from a closed-session board meeting revealing that Jim Merrill was the top choice for superintendent.
“I’m not interested in a witch hunt,” board member Bill Fletcher said. “I’m just interested in expressing the need to respect the confidentiality of certain matters.”
But the policy changes, which were approved 6-3 on Aug. 20 and are up for a final vote Tuesday, have drawn heated opposition.
“There is little ethics in this so-called policy,” said board member Deborah Prickett at the Aug. 20 meeting. “It’s more muzzling.”
School boards are required to have a code of ethics for members. But Wake would be one of a small number of school boards in the state that would include wording about sanctioning members who are found to have committed violations.
The inclusion of punishments in the ethics policy is occurring on an officially nonpartisan board that has seen heated fighting over the past four years as it flipped to a Republican majority in 2009 and back to a Democratic majority in 2011.
School board Chairman Keith Sutton asked for a policy review after former Chairman Ron Margiotta revealed to the media details of closed-session board discussions of the superintendent search. Margiotta has denied he got the information from board members.
In addition to disclosing matters discussed in closed session, other examples of ethical violations in the policy include board members:
• Surrendering their independent judgment to individuals or special interest groups.
• Not engaging in respectful dialogue with fellow board members on matters being considered by the board.
• Being placed in a position of conflict of interest and using their positions for personal or partisan gain.
• Taking private action that would compromise the board and administration.
It would take a two-thirds board vote to approve any punishments.
Sutton said there are safeguards to prevent abuse because the full board would only deal with a complaint after the chair, superintendent and board attorney have determined there’s reason to believe a violation occurred.
“It’s not intended to be a tool for a witch hunt, but again to give us a tool to have an organized and systematic way to address misconduct or bad behavior of our members,” he said.
But the reassurances didn’t satisfy board member Susan Evans, who normally votes with the majority. Evans said the policy “could become a vehicle for certain board members to take out vendettas on other board members.”
“I must admit that, based on the contentiousness that I’ve observed on this board, I do have some fear that certain board members might use this frivolously to go on a witch hunt for other members,” she said.
Board member John Tedesco said the policy would put board members at risk for judgment calls that the majority disagrees with.
“This only sets us up for further failure as a board in the future should this turn into opportunities for a witch hunt or opportunities to try and sanction somebody with sanctions that have no teeth,” he said.
But board member Tom Benton said “it gives clear guidelines of the behavior expected of board members.
“I just cannot find anything that led me to suspect that it was taking an opportunity to muzzle me or any other board member,” he said.