The calamitous adjournment of Tuesday’s board meeting is the latest procedural irregularity in what’s become a recurring theme with the current Board of Education.
Board members started their first work session in January in debate whether meetings should be held virtually or in-person. Board chair Libby Carter informed the rest of the board of the meeting’s virtual format only the previous day, and several board members spent the morning before the meeting engaged in a social media back-and-forth over the issue.
The board also spent 20 minutes of the same meeting discussing whether or not to approve the agenda as presented. Items submitted by board members Robert Levy and David Hensley had not made the deadline to be added since the school district’s winter break are not considered “working” days.
Since then the board’s policy committee has started reviewing the rules governing some of those procedural items, but in the meantime board members have taken to other back channels of communication.
Screenshots released by Moore County Schools in response to a public records request show that six of the school board’s seven members communicated with each other via text message during board meetings in December, January and February.
That’s in violation of a board policy adopted in 2013 stipulating that “Board members will not communicate electronically during meetings with members of the public, other Board members or school district staff regarding official School Board business, agenda items or other Board matters that are properly discussed publicly during Board meetings.”
Even outside of meetings, board policies caution that members should restrict the items they discuss by electronic means to “housekeeping purposes” like agenda items requests and meetings times or dates.
Despite that, the content of the messages ranges from requests for a break during a nine-hour marathon meeting to speculation about how other members will vote on an issue under debate and discussions of how Moore County Schools should staff schools based on student demographics.
Under North Carolina law, documents and electronic records generated in connection with the transaction of public business are considered to be public records and fair game for open review.
An email to Moore County Schools’ communications director Catherine Murphy from Alexa Roberts, dated Feb. 10, requests that the district release text messages and e-mail communications created during the board’s two open meetings in December, three open meetings in January and two open meetings in February. Roberts is a parent, longtime school advocate and current mayor of Whispering Pines.
Over the next few months the district released more than 70 screenshots from board members’ phones, along with screenshots of emails that district staff gleaned from board members’ official email accounts. Many of those screenshots include redactions of legally sensitive information and messages that don’t pertain to school board business.
Carter, who sits on the board’s policy committee, said that she intends for the policy to stand, but that board members need to do a better job observing it.
“Obviously electronic messaging is a violation of board policy, period. That policy exists for a reason and that is to ensure transparency in board activities,” she said.
“It is clear that some members of the board are in violation of this and that true transparency does not currently exist with back door conversations.”
Roberts’ original request stated that the communications of David Hensley, Philip Holmes and Robert Levy were “of specific interest.” But screenshots show that Chair Libby Carter, Vice-Chair Pam Thompson, and Stacey Caldwell also used text messages to communicate with each other during open meetings.
The request covered several meetings that were held by videoconference: the regular meetings and work sessions in January and February. In some cases texts to and from Carter dealt with technical difficulties and clarifications as to whether or not a board member had intentionally activated their “raised hand” notification.
Moore County Schools also offered a live stream on its YouTube channel for public viewing of the meetings. Roberts said that she viewed those videos and noticed board members using their phones.
“Maybe because I do hold an elected office that made me more aware of the fact that (texting) would be improper behavior,” she said. “I was hoping that my request would turn up nothing, that my request would turn up that maybe they were talking to their family members or their businesses or something else unrelated to school board business.”
Screenshots show messages between Carter and Caldwell during several meetings, which included Caldwell asking Carter when she should make a motion on Jan. 11 against re-appraising the old Southern Pines Primary School campus.
On Feb. 8, the two also used texting to anticipate votes on the district’s proposed 37-item building priority plan. The key point in that debate dealt with where to prioritize a $1.3 million replacement of the Pinecrest High running track.
Several proposed amendments and iterations of the plan were put up for a vote during the 70 minutes the board devoted to the subject that day. During the discussion Carter and Caldwell were in favor of ranking the track around the middle of the priority scheme while Hensley proposed leaving it off entirely for the time being.
At one point that day, Caldwell texted Carter that “We need Pam (Thompson)” and “What do u think she will do,” to which Carter responded “Vote no.”
An overall plan with the Pinecrest track ranked low on the list eventually passed by a 4-3 vote with Carter, Caldwell and Hensley against it.
The package of screenshots released includes 19, some of which Roberts has shared on social media in the last two weeks, of a group conversation between Hensley, Holmes and Levy spanning the January and February meetings.
Some of the discussion in those messages responded to an in-depth presentation of programs and staffing at Aberdeen Elementary School on Feb. 1. Aberdeen was showcased as one of three in Moore County Schools’ designated as a state Restart school this year based on a large proportion of students consistently performing below grade level on state tests.
The presentation included a comparison of staff and student demographics. Aberdeen’s student population is around 40 percent African-American, 20 percent Hispanic and 10 percent mixed race. But 45 of its 48 “certified” staff members, which includes teachers and other licensed professionals, are white.
During that Feb. 1 meeting Levy took issue with the disparity, and the ensuing discussion covered the possibility that minority teachers be reassigned to schools with higher populations of minority students. The district’s struggles with recruiting minority teachers and administrators have been a perennial discussion item.
But the text discussions between Levy, Holmes and Hensley offered more insight into his reasoning, and raised eyebrows on social media.
“Black students tell each other not to act ‘white.’ That means ‘do not succeed.’ The students need to see that discipline is given out by people who look like them, not just ‘Whitey,’” Levy wrote.
“In other words, success is not ‘acting white’ In other words, Black students can feel good about identifying with Western Culture. That is why we do not need a particular number of minority teachers, but in a school which is 60% minority, we need more than 1.”
In the text thread Levy then went on to propose that experienced teachers be offered a raise if they transfer to a Restart school.
Levy said that the text has been misinterpreted, and he meant for his point to dovetail with remarks by former President Barack Obama “urging African-American students to act in a manner which is successful,” which is not synonymous with “acting white.”
Levy, who has been chair of the board’s policy committee since January, said that he was not originally aware of the board’s policy on texting and electronic communications.
While he acknowledged that board members’ texts to each other are public record, he said they should be considered as “very informal” and sent in the interest of conducting a smooth public meeting.
Levy said that he has discontinued the practice of texting during meetings, but that board members will now be more likely to move communications, even outside of meetings, to another medium that’s harder to track.
“The only thing that this does is to assure that when two board members or three board members get together they’ll do so by telephone. It would probably be better for the public if it was done by text, because the public would be able to see the texts. So the policy, as far as the public is concerned, is counterproductive.”