It appears unlikely local legislation will be enacted this year to allow for a school board recall election, but there’s still a good chance for a school board reform measure to pass.
State Rep. Jamie Boles, who represents most of Moore County, has met in recent days with his Senate counterpart, Sen. Jerry Tillman, and neither think the prospects are favorable in the General Assembly’s waning days for a bill that would allow a recall election next March.
“We can’t get the support from the House and Senate for a local recall bill for a situation that has already corrected itself,” Boles said.
The “situation” Boles referenced was the June 4 firing of Schools Superintendent Bob Grimesey, the subsequent resignations of four of the five members who voted to terminate him and Grimesey’s reinstatement four days later.
Boles said the “sense of urgency is not as great” now that the pendulum has swung the other way on the school board. He agreed that it would be a tough sell to push though a recall provision to remove one member — Laura Lang — who voted to fire Grimesey. Lang has resisted intense public pressure from parents, community and business leaders to resign.
“There is nothing we can do legally to get rid of her at this point,” he added.
But a recall measure isn’t off the table down the road. Boles said he still would like to see such a provision on the books and said he will push for that in next year’s session.
“If we do it, let’s do it right and not make any rash decisions,” he said. “I think we need to give voters the option to have this, as long as there is a valid reason (to recall someone). It is something we’re still concerned about, and we want to have that in our tool box. We will look at all of our options to put in a provision for it.”
Boles said the chances are much better in the coming weeks for passage of a local measure to reduce the size of the school board to seven members by eliminating one of the three at-large seats. He said the county commissioners and school board concur.
“I know we can get support for that,” Boles said. “I am not sure we can get that passed if it is mixed with a recall for something that has been handled. I don’t want to see it (reduction) killed by a recall provision.”
Locally, support for a recall election is unlikely to diminish any time soon. A groundswell of almost united community outrage erupted in the fallout from the Grimesey firing.
A day after that firing, Boles took the unprecedented step of obtaining a temporary restraining order that prevented the school board from hiring a permanent superintendent so that he could get a recall bill enacted.
The four school board members who resigned — Sue Black, Ben Cameron, Becky Carlson and Kathy Farren — did so after learning of the restraining order.
Even though the school board has since filled those four vacancies and essentially marginalized Lang’s influence on the board, calls for her removal have continued to persist. Her term expires next November, and the likelihood she would win re-election is small.
County commissioners have supported having a recall provision on the books, not just because of this situation but also as a check for future behaviors. Last month, the commissioners appeared to support a recall election for Lang if it could be held next March along with the presidential primaries since it would add little or no cost. Holding a separate special election would cost more than $70,000, the board was told.
But this past Tuesday night, the commissioners unexpectedly reversed course by unanimously rejecting a resolution, drafted by County Attorney Misty Leland, that would add Moore County to a House-approved bill for Stanly County. That bill would allow a recall election for the school board if 15 percent of the registered signed a petition calling for one. It would also require the school system to foot the bill for the recall election.
With the appointment of four new members to the school board, Moore commissioners had a change of heart — at least as far as going to this length to remove one member.
But shortly after the meeting ended Tuesday night, angry parents began lambasting the commissioners on the Parents for Moore Facebook page for backing down on their support for the recall, with one calling the action “a slap in the face to the community.”
Board Chairman Nick Picerno initially tried to defend the board’s action in comments on the page. He said that while he was prepared to vote for the recall resolution, “the reality is that Ms. Lang is on an island” and will “not play any role” in how the Board of Education’s policy will be determined going forward.
“Remember our board was instrumental in the reinstatement of Dr. Bob, and we intend to focus on the issues that affect educating our kids,” he wrote. “We value the commitment of those on your site and need their support going forward to fix the major issues of funding our classrooms and upgrading our facilities. Rep Boles can still carry on with the recall legislation, he doesn't need our resolution.”
But the angry comments continued on the Facebook post, prompting Picerno to post:
“If you guys feel this strongly, I will reintroduce it back on our next meeting and I will support it. Best I can do.”
Reached for comment the next morning, Picerno confirmed that he will bring up the recall issue at the board’s next meeting Aug. 4.
“If it means so much to them, if there is that much support, we need to rethink it,” Picerno said, acknowledging that it may be a moot point given Boles’ comments. “I still say Laura Lang has absolutely no credibility on that board. I will bring it back up. I would like to know it’s more than one or two people. If people are solidly behind it, we’ll consider it.”
Picerno said he called Commissioner Catherine Graham — who proposed the board not support the recall resolution — Wednesday morning to let her know why he wants the board to reconsider.
Graham said in a telephone interview that she would be willing to reconsider her position. She said the main reason she wanted to back off seeking a recall election was “to maybe let this be a healing period” now that the makeup of the school board has changed.
“Some of it had to do with how graciously our superintendent acted after he was reinstated,” she said, noting that Grimesey reached out to Lang the night he was reinstated. “I thought that was such a graceful, encouraging act, and showed our kids how we can work with our adversaries. It was a great lesson for me.”
But Graham said she understands there are some who “feel strongly” about seeking a recall election for Lang.
“I certainly respect their desire,” she said of Parents for Moore. “We all certainly have the same goal in mind: what is best for the children and the teachers, not the Board of Education or the Board of Commissioners. We all want the same thing. I felt we had accomplished what we had needed in getting him reinstated.”
Graham said she will listen to what people have to say.
“Then I will make my decision on that I feel is in the best interest of the children and our schools,” she said.
Graham said she still has concerns about the added expense and the extra work it would create for the Board of Elections to verify every signature on a petition — points she made during the meeting Tuesday night.
“Whether the money comes from the county or the Board of Education, it all comes from the taxpayers,” she said. “That is always a concern for me as a conservative.”
Graham pointed out during the meeting Tuesday night that Lang’s term ends in early December and that it is unlikely she would be re-elected if she decided to run again.
“We’re talking about a period of March to December,” Graham said. “It is not much time.”
Graham said holding a recall election would not help the image of the county or the school system in trying to make it attractive to new families and businesses looking to come here. She said the school system is one of the things that helps attract economic development.
“We want them to think we have a good school system,” she said. “We do have a good school system. But to see recall election signs scattered all over Moore County, I don’t think would promote that.”
Commissioner Randy Saunders said a recall election would create an “overbearing load” on the elections staff to recall one member and that there would be some expense to the county.
“We’ve obviously seen major changes in the makeup of our school board,” he said.
Saunders said if there is going to a recall election provision, it should be for all elected officials.
“Why are we singling out one board based on the events of one specific situation?” he said. “If you put your name on a ballot ... then you are elected by the people. If you do something that violates their trust, then I think you should be subject to it no matter what board you are elected to. So unless you are willing to say a bill includes my seat, I wouldn’t support it because I think we all should be subject to it or none of us should be.”