Like public bodies across North Carolina, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board regularly closes its doors to the public to discuss matters that are exempted by law from public scrutiny.
But the state’s Open Records law provides a backstop for public accountability: Each board must keep minutes and release them to the public when it no longer “frustrates the purpose” of closing the meeting. For instance, a public body might discuss a pending property negotiation, contract or legal matter in private, but must release the minutes when that matter is concluded.
When a coalition of 10 North Carolina news organizations requested a year’s worth of closed-session minutes from nearly 50 public boards across the state, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools balked. The request was part of national Sunshine Week, when journalists and citizen advocates highlight public access – or lack thereof – to public business.
Never miss a local story.
In January, the Observer requested all closed session minutes from the CMS board’s meetings in 2017. For more than two months, the school system refused to release anything, saying the closed meeting minutes are “protected from disclosure by law” and arguing that revealing them to the public would “frustrate the purpose of the closed session.”
The district relented only after CMS General Counsel George Battle III was contacted by a lawyer for the N.C. School Boards Association, who had been questioned as part of the Sunshine Week reporting. Battle said the initial denial came because “there was confusion in the way I saw the request.”
Last week CMS provided heavily redacted minutes for closed meetings between Jan. 1 and July 27, 2017. Battle said more recent minutes have not yet been approved by the school board.
And minutes of a July 3 special meeting, which resulted in controversial decisions about contracts for the top staff of incoming Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, have not been released.
More than 200 miles east in Wilmington, the New Hanover County school board was also secretive with its closed-session minutes. The district refused to release any records to a reporter, saying the minutes “contain confidential information and cannot be released.”
Amanda Martin, a Raleigh-based attorney who represents the North Carolina Press Association, took issue with that response.
“As a blanket statement, that’s just not true,” Martin said. “I’m very skeptical of the idea that everything that happened in every closed session in 2017 still has to be kept from public view.”
Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition at Elon University, called the response from New Hanover County schools and the initial response from CMS “wholly inadequate.” He said even if all the meetings required redactions because of issues like student discipline or personnel action, there would still be basic information that needs to be public.
“They can’t just get out of it and say, ‘We’re not going to give you anything,’” Jones said.
Some boards are more open
Some information discussed in closed meetings is permanently confidential, including hearings related to individual students and employee discipline. Battle says that’s why so little of last year’s CMS closed-session business is public now.
But the 10 media outets, which included the (Raleigh) News & Observer and WRAL News, included almost a dozen school boards in the Sunshine Week project and found some were more open.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools provided some of the most detailed records of their private meetings. The board released 23 pages of minutes that included possible legal issues related to the Confederate flag, the structure of the PTA thrift shop, school free speech policies and text messages between board members and superintendents.
Durham Public Schools provided 49 pages of minutes that included several personnel matters that have been resolved, including recommendations for jobs that have since been filled and a raise for the superintendent.
CMS provided 74 pages, which included minutes of three personnel appeals hearings and 11 hearings on student reassignment or discipline. Other than procedural information – such as time, date and place, officials in attendance and the vote to adjourn – all of that content was blacked out.
The CMS release also covered 11 executive sessions, or closed meetings, of the board. Most were held to address confidential student information, matters related to attorney-client privilege and personnel, according to the minutes. All specifics were redacted except for three paragraphs of an April 6 meeting. Those paragraphs related to Wilcox’s earliest contracts for his top staff, an update on hiring a board clerk and the board chair’s request that members check their availability for a July meeting.
As of Monday, Battle had not responded to a follow-up query about why there is no record of a July 3 closed session, which came as Wilcox was sworn in. The session was held to discuss additional contracts for executive staff.
When the board returned to open session for a vote, they revealed only the names of people who were up for contract approval, then voted unanimously to approve those contracts. They also disclosed that they had approved hiring the husband of Wilcox’s new chief of staff in a newly created $85,000-a-year-job.
The Charlotte Observer immediately requested copies of all contracts approved, but they were not released until three months later, in September. CMS contended the draft contracts that were approved in July were not public until they were signed and finalized.
The contracts sparked controversy because several top administrators got large raises, topping out at more than $45,000 in additional pay. The contracts revealed additional compensation, such as $10,000 in relocation expenses for the chief of staff.
Even the public portion of the July 3 meeting, which was specially called to coincide with the start of Wilcox’s term, does not appear in the district’s online archive of board agendas, minutes and videos.
Law is vague
North Carolina law provides room for interpretation on what must be disclosed, and how quickly.
All of the news organizations requested closed-session minutes in early January, giving public bodies more than two months to provide them. At last check several boards said they were working on producing the documents, including the Wake County Board of Education.
Wake spokesman Tim Simmons said that in its attempt to fulfill the request, the school system uncovered a backlog of minutes that had yet to be transcribed from handwritten notes. He said said transcribing minutes of closed sessions had simply not been a priority.
The law says minutes of meetings behind closed doors must be extensive enough “so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired.”
“It doesn’t have to be a verbatim record, but it has to provide a person with a sense of what happened,” said Frayda Bluestein, professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Even if they didn’t take any action, the public has a right to know what they talked about.”
Bluestein said there are no clear rules governing how much can or can’t be redacted. However, records can’t be kept private just because releasing them would be inconvenient.
Gov. Roy Cooper has proposed guidelines for the timing and cost of producing public records. Those guidelines would not specify a time frame but would clarify that public bodies “may not withhold records based on the agency or commission’s belief that immediate release of the records would not be ‘prudent or timely’ or cause embarrassment.” Cooper is taking public comments on the guidelines through April 9.
This story was reported by Emery Dalesio, of the Associated Press; Christina Elias, of the Burlington Times-News; Jim Morrill and Ann Doss Helms, of the Charlotte Observer; Monica Vendituoli and Steve DeVane, of the Fayetteville Observer; Scott Bolejack and Andy Specht, of the News & Observer; Shawn Flynn, of Spectrum News; Brandon Wissbaum, of WECT; Tyler Dukes and Kelly Hinchcliffe, of WRAL News; and Jason deBruyn, of WUNC.