07/13/10 — Panel wants to meet in private

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Panel wants to meet in private

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 13, 2010 1:46 PM

A little of the old discord between Wayne County commissioners and the county school board was evident Monday morning as the committee that will make recommendations to fill the vacant District 2 school board seat wrestled with the wording of questions for candidates.

Monday's meeting was the first time that committee members suggested that the rest of the selection process be shielded from further public scrutiny by closing the meetings to the public -- something that the attorney for the North Carolina Press Association said would violate the state's Open Meetings Law.

Committee member Jimmy Williams, a former superintendent of schools, raised the question of closed sessions.

"I would think if there is any way that it doesn't have to be open to the public it would be in the better interest of the candidates, not us," Williams said. "I think it is wonderful that we have five people who have offered to serve. We don't want to do anything to intimidate or in some way embarrass them. This is a personnel matter."

But press association lawyer Amanda Martin said that in her opinion meeting in closed session would violate the state's Open Meetings Law.

The law allows boards to meet behind closed doors, "To consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee."

A member of an elected body, such as school board, would not be considered an employee, she said.

It would be a "huge stretch" to call the appointment an employment, she said.

"This is not an employment situation," she said.

According to the law, a "public body means any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council, or other body of the State, or of one or more counties, cities, school administrative units... ."

It further adds that, "A public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting. Final action making an appointment or discharge or removal by a public body having final authority for the appointment or discharge or removal shall be taken in an open meeting."

County Commissioner Jack Best said he would ask County Attorney Borden Parker if the sessions could be closed to the public. Parker was not present at Monday's meeting.

During the meeting, members wrangled over how they would interview the five candidates who have said they would like to serve.

County commissioners will have the final say over who is appointed. Wayne is the only county in the state that gives its commissioners that power.

Thelma Smith, the only member of the county Board of Education on the appointment committee, indicated she is concerned about the committee's recommendation and the commissioners' final choice.

"Don't send somebody to tear our board up," she said.

"I guess really being the only representative here of the school board makes me a little sensitive of what you are doing," she said. "Please be aware that I do represent a board that wants to make sure that you are sending someone that we want to do a better job. Someone that will work with us, not against us, coming in and trying to tear up the school board, but to work with us and make the Wayne County Public Schools a better place.

Best, who also leads the committee, sought to reassure Mrs. Smith.

"There is no one on this committee who is trying to make this a vendetta to the school board," Best said. "You made a statement a minute ago that you wanted someone to work with you. If you were perfect you'd replace your own people, but you are not perfect and you know, someone from the outside might see someone that could help you.

"If you are perfect you would choose someone who would say yes to whatever you'all are doing. You would choose that same type of person. That is the reason that county commissioners are choosing, not because we want to, but because we are looking at it from a board sense of responsibility."

Best said someone would be chosen that the school board could work with, but that also might bring new ideas to the table.

"That is all we can ask for," Mrs. Smith said.

Monday at 5 p.m. was the deadline for eligible District 2 residents to submit their resumes and letters of intent. Five people have done so -- Ven Faulk of Dudley, a former school board candidate; Lawrence Durham of Dudley; Len Henderson of Dudley; Dr. Dwight Bernard Cannon of Dudley; and Linda Pigford of Mount Olive.

Joyce Hatch of Mount Olive, who, according to the Board of Elections, actually lives in District 4, had originally put her name into the hat but has since asked that she not be considered.

During the meeting, Robert Hawkins of Goldsboro asked whether Cannon, who is a pastor, would have time to serve since pastors often move.

Hawkins was told that one of the questions that will be asked of the candidates is whether they will have the time to commit to serve.

Since there are no more than five candidates, committee members agreed to begin interviews at 1 p.m. on July 21 in Room 111 at the Jeffreys Building on North John Street. It will meet again at 1 p.m. on July 22 to review the interviews.

Those are the two sessions that committee members said should be closed to the public.

Commissioners will meet in special session to consider the committee's recommendation on July 23 at 9 a.m. in their meeting room on the fourth floor of the county courthouse annex.

Meanwhile, reaction was swift and unfavorable Monday morning from present and past schools officials on the committee when Commissioner Andy Anderson attempted to inject what they labeled as questions of an administrative nature into the list of questions that could be posed to the candidates.

"You are getting deeply into administrative functions, not board functions" Williams said.

He added that some of Anderson's questions were already addressed in some manner in the list of suggested questions.

Anderson suggested asking candidates: "Do you think there are too many people in the administration" and their "feelings on the main office being used as a dumping ground" for ineffective teachers and administrators.

Williams said that people new to the office would have no idea how to answer those questions. Best suggested that the questions remain more generic, such as what they felt their qualifications for the post are.

Former school board member Jim Parker asked Anderson if he would have known how to answer questions about commissioners before he was elected. Anderson said he would have done research.

Some people might think the fourth floor offices of the county government might be dumping grounds as well, said committee member Robyn Wade.

"I think people selected for this board needs to know what goes on and if they do not know, say so," Anderson said.

Anderson also wanted to ask candidates if they knew how policy and action were being documented to eliminate poor teachers and administrators.

Williams said the question would be OK if Anderson would leave out the part about documentation. He also asked Anderson if he knew how much documentation was taking place in the county offices.

At one point, Anderson's questioning prompted a back-and-forth exchange with Mrs. Smith that lasted for several minutes.

Williams said he has a problem with the committee making just one recommendation to commissioners. Providing commissioners with just one name was in effect the committee making the choice, he said.

That is not the charge of the committee, he said.

Committee members discussed ways that they could be able to rank the applicants. Members agreed there was a way to do so and that they should consider it.