State Politics

Charter school operator has no libel case against NC superintendent, court says

The Roger Bacon Academy and its owner Baker A. Mitchell cannot pursue libel charges against the former Brunswick County superintendent who was critical of the charter school operator and its plans to expand in Southeastern North Carolina.

The state Court of Appeals issued a ruling Tuesday that overturns a New Hanover County Superior Court decision that had opened a path for Mitchell and the charter school operating company to sue Edward Pruden, who was superintendent of the Brunswick County school district from 2010 to 2014.

Mitchell’s company has received millions of dollars in public money to operate schools independently of the local school districts without many of the requirements the public schools must meet.

Pruden, who openly questioned the amount in public funding that went to schools run by Mitchell, was fired by the Brunswick County school board in 2014, seven months before his contract was due to expire. No reason was given by the school board for the early termination.

Mitchell’s business network of running charter schools was extensively documented in a 2014 ProPublica article, a version of which was published in The News & Observer. Several years ago, Mitchell was involved in a stand-off with the State Board of Education over the disclosure of salaries of personnel at the public charter schools. That information eventually was disclosed, but not until after the state board threatened to take disciplinary action against the schools.

In a lawsuit filed in New Hanover County in January 2015, Mitchell contended that Pruden, while acting as superintendent of the Brunswick County school district, made a series of false claims about his company.

“Pruden has falsely stated to third parties that public charter schools assist in ‘dismantling’ North Carolina’s system of public education … and that public charter schools have ‘morphed into an entrepreneurial opportunity,’ ” Mitchell contended.

Mitchell also alleged that Pruden demonstrated his “combative attitude” toward the charter school system in a variety of formats including a YouTube video “published to thousands of third parties” in 2013, in which Pruden argues that Brunswick County Schools is “superior to the ‘competition’ ” because it “does not ‘operate for a profit.’ 

Mitchell argued that Pruden tried to malign his reputation with information included in a document provided to the state as part of the charter school approval process. In that statement, Pruden accused Mitchell’s “private companies” of profiting from taxpayer dollars in the amount of $16 million.

Pruden sought to have the defamation lawsuit filed against him dismissed.

The three-judge panel that issued the state Court of Appeals ruling Tuesday found that the lower court erred in not granting that request. The three judges, Douglas McCullough, Donna Stroud and Valerie Johnson Zachary, stated in the ruling that Pruden was entitled to “public official immunity.” Under such immunity, the person bringing the libel charge must show that Pruden was acting with malice to defame the accuser.

The three-judge panel said Mitchell had not shown that Pruden did anything other than exercise “his power in accordance with the spirit and purpose of the law.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1