A group that sought to recall three Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board members has suspended the effort, saying it is encouraged since the resignation earlier this month of former chairwoman Margaret Samuels.
Board members Pat Heinrich and James Barrett, who had been the remaining targets of the recall effort, were absent from Thursday’s school board meeting when the group’s leaders made their announcement. Heinrich had a family commitment, and Barrett was ill.
“The community will be watching,” said Ron DiFelice, who has been a group spokesman. “We are encouraged by the new leadership.”
Former vice-chairwoman Joal Broun took over as chairwoman after Samuels’ departure, after a unanimous vote by the board. The board selected Mary Ann Wolf as vice chairwoman, also by a unanimous vote.
The recall group grew out of a dispute over the Mandarin dual-language program at Glenwood Elementary School, where there is currently a dual-track system with students in the Mandarin program selected by lottery and a traditional track for students who live in the Glenwood attendance zone.
The school board voted 4-3 in September to make Glenwood a Mandarin magnet school, in part to relieve overcrowding at the school, which is the smallest elementary in the district.
After the vote, traditional-track Glenwood parents obtained the board’s emails and texts concerning the vote through a public records request. Some of the records showed Heinrich and Barrett communicating and meeting with pro-magnet parents in what some of the traditional-track parents said was an improper way.
The board’s policies say that when board members meet with stakeholders outside of a school board meeting they are to notify the board chair and the district superintendent, which Heinrich and Barrett didn’t do. The board’s legal counsel has absolved Heinrich and Barrett of any legal conflict of interest. An expert with the UNC School of Government agreed in an earlier interview with The Herald-Sun that there was no conflict of interest, but added that board policies may have been broken.
The parents included Samuels because they said as chairwoman she didn’t do enough to enforce the policies they say Heinrich and Barrett broke.
The organizers of the recall effort, however, said from the beginning that their effort was not just about what happened at Glenwood. The group filed an affidavit with the Orange County Board of Elections on Feb. 28 announcing its intention of forcing a recall election of Heinrich, Barrett and Samuels. It had 30 days to get the signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district for each of those board members, and if they had reached that goal, a recall election would have been scheduled.
Jon Driggers, the man who filed the affidavit, said Thursday he has not given up on finding accountability: “Though I will remain uneasy while [Heinrich and Barrett] remain on the board, I am open to letting the board chair, with the full attention of the district, and my full attention, work to restore our faith in their accountability.”
In her resignation letter two weeks ago, Samuels wrote she is not a politician and has “no appetite for political fights that take the attention away from our schools and our children.”
All three members’ terms were up in the fall. Barrett, who has served on the board for nearly eight years, has already said he will not run for re-election, instead planning on running for state school superintendent in 2020.
The board also postponed a discussion on filling Samuels’ vacant seat until the November election. The board has decided it would like to fill the seat with a former board member, as that would allow the new person to feel at home right away.
Also, as board member Rani Dasi pointed out, someone who has served before might be less likely to want to run for the seat in the fall, when occupying the seat could give that person an advantage in the election.
The board decided it would take the next two weeks to see if it can find a former board member who is interested in serving. If not, the board will take applications to fill the spot, and it will be looking for prior elected board experience, involvement with the schools as a volunteer, someone familiar with the board’s priorities and someone focused on equity.
District employees are barred from serving on the school board.