Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board members respond to parent group’s recall effort

A group of parents who say rules were violated in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board’s recent actions to make Glenwood Elementary a Mandarin language magnet school will try to recall board members James Barrett, Pat Heinrich, and board Chairwoman Margaret Samuels.
A group of parents who say rules were violated in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board’s recent actions to make Glenwood Elementary a Mandarin language magnet school will try to recall board members James Barrett, Pat Heinrich, and board Chairwoman Margaret Samuels.

Two of the three Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board members who could face recall elections have issued statements responding to the threat.

Chairwoman Margaret Samuels says she was not the head of the board at the time of the vote to make Glenwood Elementary a Mandarin language magnet school, the impetus behind a local group’s drive to oust her and members James Barrett and Pat Heinrich.

“The magnet expansion vote and the board member communications with constituents at issue occurred prior to my tenure as board chair,” she said.

Samuels was selected to head the board in January, after the September vote.

“It is important to understand,” she continued, “that there is no enforcement authority given to the chair of the board of education alone – board decisions are collective majority actions that can be initiated by a motion from any of the seven members.”

Glenwood currently has a dual-language Mandarin track that is open to all district students by lottery and a traditional track for students who live in the Glenwood zone. To help address overcrowding at the school, the smallest elementary in the district, the board voted 4-3 in September to make it a Mandarin magnet school. The district is still working out the details.

After the vote, some parents of children in the traditional track made a public records request to get board members’ e-mails and text messages pertaining to the Glenwood decision.

They say the records show Heinrich and Barrett had improper contact with pro-magnet parents, and met with them without notifying the board chairwoman and superintendent, against the board’s policies. They also say Heinrich, who has a daughter in the Mandarin program, and Barrett shared non-public information with program parents.

The parents fault Samuels for not enforcing the policies they say have been violated.

“My primary focus,” Samuels’ statement concludes, “will continue to be the educational welfare of all students attending Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools and ensuring that all schools and programs meet the needs of every child in attendance.”

A group of parents filed an affidavit Thursday with the Orange County Board of Elections. A referendum would be held on each member for whom the parents can gather the signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in the CHCCS district.

Both the director of the Orange County Board of Elections and an expert in election law at the UNC School of Government said they don’t know of a recall election being held in Orange County before.

The terms for all three board members are up in the fall.

Barrett, who has served nearly eight years on the board, had already said he will not be running for re-election in order to run for state school superintendent in 2020.

Barrett said he was struck by the irony of the complaint: “From the very beginning of my campaigns for school board, I put openness and communication with constituents as two of my main priorities, widely publicizing my cell phone number and promising to talk with/meet for coffee any who asked.”

Barrett says he responded to anyone who asked for his thoughts on the Glenwood issue, but those who are unhappy with the outcome of the vote never tried to contact him.

“Had they I would have gladly talked with them, as I have in more recent months,” his statement continued. “They may have been disappointed to learn that I didn’t plan to vote as they wished, but I would have explained my consistent reasoning over the years of Mandarin conversations and listened to their concerns, to gather any other information I hadn’t already heard or thought of that could affect my vote.”

Barrett says he did not share private information, adding that as a public body the board has no private information other that personnel information and specific student concerns.

“I have a track record of asking the board to release all of our emails on a web archive as a normal course of business (as other boards in the county already do) to show the public that this is the case,” Barrett’s email continued.

‘Not just about Glenwood’

Riza Jenkins Redd, who is one of the organizers of the recall movement, said the effort has grown beyond angered Glenwood parents, adding that she has three children at Seawell Elementary but none at Glenwood.

“It’s not just about Glenwood,” she said. “It’s about the misconduct. This kind of behavior is improper. … We want to make sure our board members are behaving properly when they’re making decisions.”

In an interview last fall, Frayda S. Bluestein, a professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, concurred with the school board’s attorney that Heinrich having a student at Glenwood was not a legal conflict of interest. Typically, a legal conflict of interest involves a monetary issue, she said.

Bluestein did, however, say local policies may have been violated, citing two policies in the board’s code of ethics: one admonishing board members from investigating or attempting to resolve complaints received personally, instead directing the complainant to follow the board’s complaint or grievance policies, and another putting the educational welfare of public school students above all other concerns.

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