Union school board defends surprise redistricting vote

Union County school board members defended their surprise vote this week to approve a controversial redistricting plan while seething parents look to file a lawsuit over the move.

Two board members who opposed redistricting, Marce Savage and Sherry Hodges, accused colleagues of blindsiding them and preparing ahead of time to vote on the issue.

Board members had repeatedly cited April 1 as the time by which a decision had to be made, and many anticipated a vote on that date.

On Tuesday night, the board agenda called for “discussion of options to alleviate overcrowding.” Instead, the board voted to approve redistricting, along with related amendments.

Chaos erupted at the meeting; some parents cried and shouted while others were escorted out of the meeting by law enforcement.

“There was no transparency whatsoever. This was a back-door deal,” Savage said. “There is no trust in the Union County Public Schools representatives right now.”

Savage, who is also a member of the state Board of Education, said many Union parents have asked that board for help. Although the state board has no jurisdiction over a local issue such as redistricting, it unanimously passed a redistricting resolution Thursday.

At the meeting, a sobbing Savage asked fellow state board members to excuse her for getting emotional and accused Union County board members of not listening to parents. The resolution does not mention Union. It requests that local school boards deliberate “with extensive input” from parents and others while making reassignment decisions.

Union parents plan to file suit next week and challenge the vote on procedural and transparency issues, said Chris Bernard, a parent and lawyer. “It’s clear to us that a lot of the decision-making was done behind closed doors,” he said.

School board Chairman Richard Yercheck, who voted for the plan, said the board properly acted after a motion was made and seconded. He said the process, which has been going on for about a year, was transparent.

Union’s first countywide redistricting plan initially required 5,800 out of 41,800 students, or 14 percent of the total, to switch schools. The new plan roughly covers about 3,200 students, Yercheck said.

Parents feared for the disruption in their kids’ lives. They also worried about children attending schools with lower test scores or that the switch could impact neighborhood home values.

Written motions

Board member John Crowder made the motion to approve redistricting and Rick Pigg offered an amendment to exempt current fourth- and seventh-graders, and all high school students, if parents provided transportation.

Crowder said he wrote out his motion before the meeting, and told some board members ahead of the vote he planned to make that motion. He said he did not remember who he told or when he informed them.

And Crowder disagreed that the vote was a “done deal” before the meeting. “It’s not a done deal until the vote is taken,” he said.

Pigg said he wrote up his amendment before the meeting and told one or two board members he favored the type of exemptions he proposed. Going into the meeting, Pigg said, “I did not know there was going to be a vote per se. I knew some of them were ready to call the question. You always have that option.”

Savage said she thought a vote would not come until April 1. But Yercheck called April 1 the “drop-dead deadline” for a vote.

The vote does not appear to have violated state law, said Mike Tadych, counsel for the N.C. Press Association, as long as a proper motion was made at the meeting. “It (the vote) may not be wise ... but it’s probably not subject to legal challenge.

“Obviously people can challenge it at the polls,” Tadych added.

There is no state requirement that school boards must have an agenda before a vote occurs, said Tadych and Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition. But Jones criticized how the vote happened.

“A surprise vote like that is not good for transparency and erodes trust in the school board,” Jones said, especially when the public expected a vote in April. Making significant changes to the plan right before the vote further hurts transparency, he said.

‘Hung out to dry’

Savage and Hodges said they had no idea a vote was coming. “They hung us out to dry,” said Savage, who walked out of the meeting before the final vote.

Hodges called the vote disappointing and disingenuous. “It definitely fosters a lack of trust,” she said.

Board member Kevin Stewart, who supported redistricting, said he also did not know there would be a vote beforehand. “I just heard some folks (on the board) talk about calling the question, but I did not realize they were going to do it last night,” Stewart said, declining to identify the board members.

He said the process has remained transparent from the start and criticized what he said were nasty comments on social media and elsewhere directed at the board and staff. “The longer it went on, the uglier it got. It was time to make a decision,” Stewart said.

Stewart also criticized Savage for leaving the meeting, saying, she “threw a tantrum … (in a) failure of leadership.” Savage dismissed his criticism.

Other board members who voted for redistricting could not be reached: John Collins, Michael Guzman and Christina Helms.

Parents react

In interviews and on social media, parents vowed to keep fighting. A community rally is planned for Sunday at 3 p.m in Wesley Chapel near Hickory Tavern.

The board has lost the trust of parents, Maura MacKinnon said, adding, “This is not over.” Fellow parent Terez Biancardi called the Tuesday meeting an embarrassing charade, adding, “They had all of this planned out from the beginning.”

Yercheck said he understands why some parents are upset with the board, but said the decision was made in the best interest of all students and taxpayers.

Other parents registered disgust online. This Facebook comment was typical: “What a slap in the face to every parent who followed their rules ... and was still mowed over by huge egos and absolutely infuriating ignorance.” News and Observer reporter T. Keung Hui contributed