State Rep. Jamie Boles says he will file legislation in some form Monday to allow for a recall election of the Moore County Board of Education in November.
Boles decided Friday to move ahead — without waiting until the county commissioners meet Wednesday — after obtaining a temporary restraining order from Superior Court Judge James Webb barring the school board from hiring a permanent superintendent "until proper legislation is passed to establish a fair process in which elected officials can be held accountable," he said in a statement to The Pilot.
Friday’s developments came after the Board of Education on Thursday voted 5-3 to fire first-year Schools Superintendent Bob Grimesey for undeclared personnel matters. There has been near universal support for Grimesey.
"The integrity of our board has been severely compromised by their arbitrary actions, which have been condemned by our citizens in a most vocal way," he said in the statement. "This is not what the citizens of Moore County envisioned when electing their board members. I intend to re-establish the confidence in the Moore County Board of Education so we can move forward with future competent decisions that affect our students, teachers, parents, community leaders and our community."
Boles’ legislation would allow voters to decide in November whether to recall the entire eight-member board. It would require that 15 percent of the registered voters sign a petition — 9, 260 voters in Moore — requesting a recall election.
If voters approved the recall, the Board of Commissioners would appoint new members to serve until the next election in 2016, Boles said. He added that the commissioners would likely turn around and reappoint the three members who voted against firing Grimesey: Board chair Bruce Cunningham, Ed Dennison and Charles Lambert.
Boles said it is possible that Moore County could be added to a House-approved bill allowing a recall election for the Stanly County Board of Education. That bill is still awaiting Senate action and has been held up in the Rules Committee since the House passed it March 31.
Boles said he has spoken with state Sen. Jerry Tillman, who represents Moore and Randolph counties, about getting the Moore County provision approved in the Senate.
Tillman, reached by phone late Friday afternoon, said he will work with Boles on getting the measure through the Senate. He said he is unsure at this point whether amending the Stanly County bill would be the way to go since there may be a reason why that legislation is being delayed. He said the Moore recall election could be added to another bill.
"We will look for whatever we can get it attached to and get it passed in the Senate," he said.
This development came after the Moore County Board of Commissioners had called for a special meeting Wednesday afternoon at which they will discuss recall legislation for the school board members.
The meeting, scheduled for noon in the commissioners’ meeting room on the second floor of the Historic Courthouse in Carthage, was initially called to discuss the proposed fiscal year 2016 budget. Commissioners are considering a possible reduction in their allocation to the public schools after the Board of Education’s vote to buy out his contract for $165,500.
Board Chairman Nick Picerno said Friday evening that Boles had contacted him about seeking a restraining order and moving ahead with seeking recall legislation. Currently, there is no recall election provision for the school board in Moore County.
"I am good with that," Pierno said of Boles' plans. "If they (five school board members) don't resign by noon Monday, we will formulate a resolution in support of Jamie's legislation so the people of Moore County have a voice. That is our main concern."
Picerno said earlier in the week that he supports the idea of having a recall election provision in place.
“If that is the will of the voters, that is what I am for," he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with it. I think this is fair. What I saw (Thursday) was overwhelming support for Dr. Grimesey and a deaf ear by the school board. They were meeting in our meeting room. The school board might not have been listening, but we were listening to them.”
Picerno said he has no problem with having a recall election provision for the county commissioners.
“The voters put us in office, and they put a certain amount of trust in us,” he said. “If they have a problem with me because of something I did, so be it. I work for the voters.”
Boles said in an earlier interview, before he obtained the temporary restraining order, that there is some sense of urgency to doing something to prevent the current board from doing further damage.
"'Whatever happens needs to happen in this session," he said. "This is something that can’t be put off. This is not political. It is not Democrat or Republican. I don’t think that is an issue in this case.
“I think (the school board) made a big mistake. How can you recruit a new superintendent and recruit and retain good teachers with this happening?”
Support for a recall election sprang before the school board’s vote was even announced Thursday. Sandhills Community College President John Dempsey initially raised the matter to an overflow crowd in the school board’s meeting room Thursday morning while the school board was meeting behind closed doors.
“No matter how high passions are running now, memories are short,” he said Friday in an interview. “We don’t want to forget. We’re seeing democracy thwarted. That is what bothers me.”
Dempsey said this situation has united residents from all parts of the county that have sometimes been divided. He said the school board “simply failed to acknowledge the presence of all of Moore County” in making its decision to fire Grimesey.
Two of the five who voted to fire Grimesey — Becky Carlson and Sue Black — were elected to four-year terms as at-large members last November. They would not stand for re-election until 2018. Seats held by Kathy Farren (District 2), Laura Lang (District 4) and Ben Cameron (District 1) are up for election in 2016.
Of three who voted against firing Grimesey, Charles Lambert (District 3) and Ed Dennison (at-large) were re-elected last year. Current Chairman Bruce Cunningham (District) 5) would face re-election next year.
Jennifer Garner, a Southern Pines attorney and former school board chairwoman, said a recall may lead to quicker healing.
“I think waiting for the 2016 and 2018 elections is too long,” Garner said. “I don’t think the community will stand for that.”
In addition to the recall election legislation, the commissioners will also discuss the proposed budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. The commissioners are expected to vote on final adoption of the budget June 16.
“Today’s action by the Board of Education has certainly (given) us pause as to how we will proceed,” Picerno said in a post on his personal Facebook page in announcing the special meeting. “Very saddened by today’s course of events. We are better than this.”
Picerno said in a statement to The Pilot on Wednesday, the day before the school board voted to fire Grimesey, that he would support reducing the county’s appropriation to the school system by the same amount to buy out the superintendent’s contract — $165,000. He said even though the majority of school board members said they would take the money from its fund balance, “that is still taxpayers’ money. It is not their money. They don’t generate any money.”
He said the school board’s action also weakens its case that it needs more money from the county.
“If you’ve got a money issue, why are you buying this man off?” Picerno said. “The taxpayers should not be on the hook for this.”
Picerno said another issue that the commissioners will discuss Wednesday is the fact that the school system maintains a large savings account — $4.75 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014, according to the school board’s annual audit.
“One of my biggest beefs all along is governments have large fund balances,” he said. “It seems to get used for other purposes. We will be looking at our allocation to the schools. But we don’t want to put school kids at risks. We will not do that.”
All five commissioners have expressed opposition to the school board’s action to fire Grimesey and buy out his contract without giving any reason.
“Our board is unified in its disdain for their board’s action,” said Commissioner Otis Ritter, who attended the school meeting. “I’ve been to two World Fairs and a pig breeding, but I’ve never seen anything like this. It shows that if you push the right buttons, people will turn out for a cause. Their action makes me sick.
“I really have not heard a thing this man has done wrong. I don’t know what the legality is, but they need to say why this was done. To me, they are hiding behind it (personnel law). What they said did not make sense to me. They’ll have to answer to their constituents.”
Picerno, in an interview after the school board meeting ended, said the board scuttled a lot of work and good will built by Grimesey.
“I can say that I have never been more excited about working with another board for what we think is the proper use of funding,” he said. “We had the math, we had the motivation, but this action by the school board kills it. All that work (for nothing).
“If they consider firing Dr. Grimesey to be more important than the budget, then God bless ‘em. But I trust Dr. Grimesey, I think he’s a good man, and I didn’t have that same relationship with his predecessor Aaron Spence.”
Picerno said in a later interview that he was given an explanation by one of the five school board members who voted to fire Grimesey — which he could not elaborate on — that turned out to be untrue.
“I’ve lost confidence in the communication with them and trusting what they say,” he said.
Commissioner Randy Saunders, who has served as the liaison to the school board, said he has received more than 100 emails and calls all in support of Grimesey. He said he has received none from anyone agreeing with the school board’s action.
Saunders said the large turnout of parents and other supporters at the meeting Thursday “told me a lot. It is exciting to see the public care. The voice of the people was not heard today.”
He agreed that this has the potential to damage the good relationship between the commissioners and the school board.
“We going to have to see where it goes,” he said. “I hope we can move past this. They’ve got some hurdles to deal with in the months ahead.”
Saunders agreed with Picerno that taxpayer money should not be used to pay for the buyout.
“It is going to be difficult,” he said of figuring out how to reduce the appropriation so that it doesn’t impact the classroom. “I have just got to look at those numbers and spend some time going over all of them. We’ll see what happens.”
Commissioner Jerry Daeke, who was unable to attend the school board meeting, also said he was “extremely disappointed” with the action.
“I had only worked with him a few months, but he seemed like a fine, outgoing man and seemed to be doing a good job. It is appalling to me that it happened and the way it happened,” he said.
Daeke said all of the calls and emails he received were in support of Grimesey.
“I would like to get some answers,” he said. “It happened so fast. The time, the quickness doesn’t seem appropriate.”
Commissioner Catherine Graham said Thursday was “a sad day” for the county.
“We’re not privy to know what caused them to make this decision,” she said. “It appears to be a bad decision and a costly decision. I am concerned about how it will affect our taxpayers.”
On the issue of the school board budget, Graham said she had concerns about maintaining a large fund balance before any of this happened.
“How much money can they hold, do they need to hold?” she asked. “We don’t want to punish the students for adult decisions. It remains to be seen how we can do that without hurting students.”
Graham said she is also “deeply” concerned about the apparent division on the school board as it moves forward.
“How can they make effective, intelligent decisions being such a divided board?” she asked. “It is just such an unfortunate situation for this county, our schools and the school board. We are all working for the citizens of Moore County, not our buddies on the board. We need to make good decisions for everybody.”