03/16/05 — School board's serial meeting may have violated Open Meetings Law

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School board's serial meeting may have violated Open Meetings Law

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on March 16, 2005 1:47 PM

The Wayne County Board of Education may have violated the state's open meetings law by not discussing its response to a letter from county commissioners during a public meeting.

The issue was discussed on the telephone by board members.

School board Chairman Lehman Smith acknowledged Tuesday that he called each board member individually to gain consensus on how to respond to the commissioners.

"It wasn't any big deal," Smith said. "I just called each of them on the phone to see if they agreed on the letter."

North Carolina's Open Meetings Law requires that the "hearings, deliberations, and actions" of public bodies be conducted openly.

A lawyer for the N.C. Press Association says that using phone calls to poll board members on an issue "circumvents the process."

The lawyer, Michael Tadych, said that polling board members by telephone was a process known as a "serial meeting," and did not provide the public an open forum to listen to issues being discussed.

"It's inconsistent with the law," he said.

Smith said he didn't think talking to board members over the phone was illegal.

"I knew we couldn't get four or more together to discuss something, but I thought we could call on the phone," he said.

The schools superintendent, Dr. Steve Taylor, said today that school board members were called regarding their position on forming an educational council.

Taylor said that the board had discussed the issue during a joint meeting with commissioners and the Goldsboro City Council. That meeting was open. After receiving a letter from the county, he said, he drafted a response and school board members were called to confirm their position on the issue.

If their opinions had been different from what was mentioned at the joint meeting, the school board would have discussed the issue in an open meeting, Taylor said.

Tadych said that was still considered "polling."

The letter from the commissioners brought up at least one issue not discussed at the February joint meeting -- the reconvening of the steering committee for the strategic plan that the county adopted in 1996.

On March 1, the county commissioners discussed, in an open work session, their intention to send a letter to the school board regarding implementing the educational part of the county's strategic plan.

A copy of that letter was given to the News-Argus on March 2 by the county manager.

The letter said that the commissioners wanted to reconvene the original steering committee for the strategic plan. The commissioners also proposed holding a retreat between the school board and the commissioners, and forming an educational council, as recommended in the strategic plan.

On March 7, the school board held its regularly scheduled meeting, but did not mention the letter from commissioners. Instead, a good portion of the meeting was spent discussing whether members had been invited to the economic development commission's retreat in previous years.

The school board also held a 90-minute closed session on March 7. Smith said the board discussed "personnel and legal" matters.

Two days later, the school board sent a response to the county's letter, but did not make its decision known to the public.

The county manager's office released a copy of the school board's letter.

In the letter, signed by Lehman Smith, the board said it didn't want a county educational council formed as proposed in the county's strategic plan. Instead, the school board recommended using members from the existing advisory council.

The school board agreed to the other parts of the strategic plan dealing with educational issues, which included:

*A one-day workshop retreat with both the school board and the county commissioners to discuss funding issues.

*Scheduled visits of the county commissioners to each school, as soon as the county provides dates.

*The reactivation of the original Wayne County Strategic Plan Steering Committee, with the understanding that all areas of the strategic plan will be reviewed.