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Morrison opens CMS panels to the public

Superintendent reverses stance after some question the need for privacy

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Superintendent Heath Morrison on Tuesday reversed his decision to close meetings of 22 task forces to the public, saying the schedules will be posted so citizens can attend if they choose.

Some of the groups, which will advise district leaders on issues such as public trust, technology and teacher compensation, are holding their first meetings this week. Some appointees were already raising questions about the legality and wisdom of barring the public.

“It goes against our free society,” Tom Davis, a member of the accountability task force, said Tuesday. He had planned to challenge the decision Wednesday, when his group holds its first session.

Morrison said Tuesday that organizing meetings will be closed but all others will be open.

The task forces, made up of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees and outside volunteers, will advise Morrison and the school board during the next six months, as they craft a 2013-14 budget and revise their five-year plan for CMS.

“It has always been our goal to conduct this work inclusively, and in a way that both engenders public trust and fosters the kind of free exchange of ideas that will lead to the best outcomes,” Morrison said in a statement emailed to the media Tuesday afternoon.

About 300 people have been named to the task forces. Chief Communication Officer Kathryn Block said some groups are still firming up membership, and all rosters will be released when that work is done.

In December, Morrison said task force meetings would be closed to the public because that would let members have more productive discussions. He said CMS staff would post notes from the meetings, and future town hall meetings would give everyone a chance to talk with task force members.

Two experts from the UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Government said the task force meetings fall under the N.C. Open Meetings law, which requires that meetings be announced and open to the public. That law covers not just elected officials but appointed bodies that have an “advisory function” to public bodies such as “school administrative units.”

CMS attorney George Battle III contended that the task forces are exempt because they were created by Morrison rather than the school board.

Tuesday’s news release did not address the legal question or the reason for the change.

Davis, an Air Force retiree who is active in north suburban politics and education, said he had been agonizing over whether to resign if the meetings were closed.

He had told Morrison he thought that would undermine the trust Morrison is trying to build.

“We should be able, if we want to, to go sit in the back of that room,” he said. “It’s worked before. Why are we doing it differently now?”

Davis served on a volunteer panel created by the school board in the wake of voters’ 2005 rejection of a school bond referendum. Appointees from a range of locations and perspectives met in public to discuss a plan for construction and renovation that could pull voter support. Their talks were sometimes contentious, but they united on a recommendation and voters approved a record $516 million in school bonds in 2007.

Audiences were small at those meetings, but Davis said he got valuable questions and suggestions from those who did attend.

Bolyn McClung, appointed to the new task force on time, capital and resource management, also served on the panel to create a new bond plan. Since then he has attended many meetings of the school board and its committees. He wrote to Battle contesting the notion that the new task forces are independent of the school board.

Although board members did not vote to create the new task forces or appoint members, they have been actively consulting with Morrison and his staff, McClung said. In his letter to Battle, McClung said Morrison told a board committee that Chief of Staff Earnest Winston would serve as the liaison between the board and the task forces.

And in an interview, McClung said that board member Amelia Stinson-Wesley told him she had “put my name in” for a task force appointment.

Helms: 704-358-5033
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