Wake School Board sued over meetings

May 6, 2010 3:32:51 PM PDT
A lawsuit filed Thursday claims the Wake County School board violated North Carolina's Open Meetings Law by restricting access to a recent meeting.

In a news release, the North Carolina Justice Center said the suit is on behalf of a group of Wake County citizens. The lawsuit filed in the Superior Court of Wake County asks that action taken by the board at the meeting on March 23 be invalidated.

At the March 23 meeting, the board approved a resolution to do away with the district's old pro-diversity assignment policy in favor of so-called "neighborhood schools." The highly controversial move drew a large crowd, but the board restricted access to its meeting room and required anyone who came in to have one of a limited number of tickets. The board declined an offer from the News & Observer newspaper which said it would pay to move the meeting to a larger venue.

The lawsuit alleges that by barring the plaintiffs from the meeting, the board violated state law and undermined the democratic process.

"The school board has made it clear that they have an agenda to follow," said Woody Barlow, a plaintiff in this lawsuit and a junior at Enloe High School in a statement. "I feel cheated that they would skirt procedure just to have their way, and regardless of what people think of the policies of the board, everyone should feel threatened by their disregard of the democratic process."

But Wake County School Board Chairman Ron Margiotta disagrees.

"This is a distraction from what the School Board is trying to accomplish and what the public elected us to do," he told ABC11.

The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of North Carolina, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, NC NAACP, UNC Center for Civil Rights, NC Justice Center and multiple private lawyers.

"The suit does not ask for any money in compensatory damages. It is purely a good government lawsuit," said Irv Joyner, an attorney with the NC NAACP.

The plaintiffs also want all policies and practices adopted since the March 23 meeting thrown out. The lawsuit asks the court to require new procedures to "ensure that all members of the public who want to attend meetings are allowed to do so and to effectively participate in the process."

"The school board's actions described in this complaint are clear violations of the Open Meetings Law," said Swain Wood, an attorney in Raleigh who is serving as counsel for the plaintiffs. "The board should immediately put a stop to these actions, and should make it possible for all citizens to exercise their right to attend public meetings."

But Wake County School Board Vice Chairman Debra Goldman said the board will not go back and revisit any of its recent votes.

"This is a real stretch. There have been no violations of state law. We act under the guidance of our board attorney. We have no plans to change or reverse any recent decisions," she told ABC11.

But at least one school board member was sympathetic to the argument the lawsuit presents.

"Rules and process have been changing without a lot of notice to the public. We need to be consistent. We probably need a larger venue," said board member Kevin Hill.

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