News: CJ Exclusives

Critics: School Board Disciplinary Policies Meant To Stifle Dissent

Wake and Buncombe board majorities insist censure measures are benign

School boards in Wake and Buncombe counties are pursuing disciplinary policies they say are necessary to prevent rogue board members from bringing their school systems into disrepute. Critics say they’re pure intimidation tactics meant to silence critics and cover up problems.

“I can see people’s concerns about it being a possible intimidation factor,” but they are unfounded, said Amy Churchill, a newly elected member of the Buncombe County Board of Education and the primary catalyst behind its censure policy, which could be voted on at the board’s Sept. 5 meeting.

“It’s basically a little smack on the hand, make sure you don’t do that again,” Churchill said. “It’s just a statement of displeasure. There’s no way it could be used to throw somebody off the board.”

The Buncombe board is putting together “a step-by-step guideline to make sure that it is not done randomly and for vindictive reasons,” she said.

“I think that’s what people are missing who are against this policy. It is “a good thing for all board members” to have a written policy to protect against retaliation, Churchill said.

“The censure is a consequence for not following the ethics policy,” she said. It is not a cudgel to stifle dissent. She did not mention names, but said actions of one board member prompted her to explore the policy.

“I do think it’s targeting me,” said Lisa Baldwin, a lightning rod as the board’s most conservative member. “I think my board does not like it when I ask a lot of questions. I have to ask a lot of questions because I don’t get the data” from other board members or staff, she said.

“I’ve been asking a lot of questions lately about the purchase of a lot of property that we don’t need. Our enrollment has been pretty much flat,” she said. Other board members “really didn’t like it when I brought up that they told contractors and their maintenance workers not to get permits for inspection and work” on school buildings, Baldwin said.

The censure policy states that, by a two-thirds majority vote, the school board “can reprimand or condemn the actions of a member for any violation of law or policy or any other conduct committed by a board member which tends to injure the good name of the Buncombe County Board of Education and/or undermines the effectiveness of the Buncombe County Schools or the Board of Education.”

The school board also could ask a member to resign, refer conduct to the district attorney for possible criminal charges, or issue a letter of warning about future conduct.

Baldwin said the language lacks specificity, and could be interpreted broadly and with malice. That could make a board member less effective, and affect elections by turning public sentiment against the ostracized member during campaigns.

She sent a copy of the proposed censure policy to the North Carolina School Boards Association for feedback. Janine Murphy, the association’s assistant legal counsel in charge of its model policy manual “Policies to Lead the Schools,” reviewed it.

Baldwin said Murphy “thought the censure policy was wonderful. She said, ‘I would recommend it to other school boards as a model policy [for consideration].’”

Murphy offered a different account. “Our base policy manual does not have a policy on censure. We don’t even have that word in any of our policies because, from our perspective, censure is not legally mandated,” and is “rare” as a policy, she said.

The association has a removal policy because “there are laws about board members being removed if they commit felonies and things like that, but the district attorney would have to do that,” Murphy said. “Board members do not have legal ability to remove one of their own.”

She speculated that, without naming anyone, there are board members who might wear censure as a badge of honor — “Look, I got this because I’m kicking up the dust and they don’t like the fact that I’m kicking up the dust,” Murphy suggested.

Censure is “more of a political question than a legal question,” Murphy said. “So it’s not being pushed by the North Carolina School Boards Association at all.”

Wake County school board member Deborah Prickett doesn’t buy that.

The Wake County policy, which was approved 5-3 on first reading Tuesday night, “came from the School Boards Association,” Prickett said. “They’re the one who tried to start putting this policy in school boards across the state.” The Wake County policy closely resembles the Buncombe proposal.

“I just think this policy seems to be more of a muzzle [rather than a way to enforce] ethics. If you read through the policy there’s not a lot of ethics to it,” Prickett said. She described the Wake policy as “a power grab” not based in law.

“It seems to be politically driven to me because now there are very few Republicans on the board. The election’s coming up” in November and majority Democrats could use the censure process to cast GOP board members in an unfavorable light to the voting public, Prickett said.

State law requires only that school board members earn two hours of ethics education within 12 months of assuming office and take 12 hours of ethics training annually, she said. She said she would not sign the ethics policy if it passed.

At Tuesday’s meeting, school board attorney Jonathan Blumberg said the word censure was removed from the policy due to objections by some board members. The policy still allows “reprimands.” Language interpreted by some as preventing free-flowing communication with constituents also was stricken.

Board Chairman Keith Sutton said the policy is “not intended to be a tool for a witch hunt, but again [to] give us an organized and systematic way to address the misconduct or bad behavior of board members.” Students and teachers have a code of conduct, “and there’s no reason we shouldn’t have one as well,” he told board members Tuesday.

Board member Susan Evans, who voted with Prickett and John Tedesco against the policy, expressed “conflicted feelings.”

“I must admit that based on the contentiousness that I’ve observed on this board I do have some fear that certain board members might use this frivolously to [conduct] witch hunts for other board members,” Evans said.

“They are high standards, and I think as an elected body we need to hold each other accountable,” said board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner.

Tony Rose, chairman of the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education, said that school board created an ethics policy about two years ago, “but it does not contain the censure language that Buncombe and Wake County is considering.”

“I can say that we have had no discussions regarding having such nonsense here,” Rose said. “I am shocked and appalled that the North Carolina School Boards Association and legal representatives are endorsing such governmental-sanctioned gag ordering.”

Rose said when a board majority passes policies “designed to squelch the voices of certain [dissenting] members, it is the public who suffers. This is how the ‘public’ is taken out of public schools and is intentionally handed over to a group of elitists who think they know best.”

Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said censure policies “discourage transparency, and one of the school district’s priorities, especially on the school board level, should be transparency.”

“It looks like in these cases it’s being used to silence a minority and seems like it’s a punitive measure rather than one that actually deals with a problem of misbehaving school board members,” Stoops said.

A policy that muzzles a school board member because of unwelcome speech is “a direct affront to those families” he represents, Stoops said.

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.