Union County parents sue school board to try to stop redistricting

Union County parents sued the school board Monday to try to thwart a redistricting plan, claiming the plan was developed in secret and illegally approved.

A hearing on the parents request to halt redistricting was set for Monday in Union County Court.

Depending on the outcome, the court case could also pose a logistical problem for school officials. They have repeatedly cited April 1 as the date when redistricting needed to be in place to give them enough time to implement it in the fall.

A divided school board took a surprise vote March 4 and approved the plan to have several thousand students switch schools to deal with overcrowding. A final vote was not listed on the meeting agenda.

Experts with the N.C. Press Association and N.C. Open Government Coalition said the state does not require an item to be on the agenda before it is voted on, but they added that failure to do so can erode trust in the board and is not good for transparency.

But the suit contends that the board violated the state Open Meetings Act by reaching a secret agreement on the plan without the proper transparency, public debate and participation.

School board Chairman Richard Yercheck has defended the vote as proper. He declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday because he had not seen it.

A group of parents and taxpayers formed the anti-redistricting group Citizens For Adequate Public Schools, or CAPS, which organized the lawsuit.

“When an elected body treats its stakeholders with contempt, disregards their concerns and input, and deprives them of a voice, it is incumbent upon stakeholders to assert their rights in court for the good of all,” CAPS said in a statement. “We will not accept a scripted ‘vote,’ rushed precisely to limit our inquiry and opposition.”

In their 23-page lawsuit filed in Union County Court, parents claim:

• The school board developed and finalized its redistricting plan in secret and in a way “that appears to have been designed to exclude the public from participation in the process,” in violation of state laws.

• School board members opposed to redistricting were excluded from the process.

• The school board misled the public and certain board members to believe that no vote would take place on the issue March 4.

• As part of redistricting, “school boundary maps have been redrawn in an arbitrary and capricious manner, without regard for the educational interests or safety of the children of Union County or the financial interests of its taxpayers. ... Stability has been sacrificed with no legitimate justification to the public.”

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the entire reassignment plan invalid.

Wesley Chapel resident Kim Hillegas is the lead plaintiff in the suit. She said she hopes the lawsuit will help parents districtwide and serve as a check on the school board’s powers.

Under the redistricting proposal, about 5,800 of 41,800 students, or 14 percent of the total, would switch schools.

Parents have said they are concerned about the disruption redistricting would cause their children, while others worried about long bus rides, having their kids go to older schools or ones with lower test scores, or the impact redistricting might have on neighborhood property values.

The school board modified the plan right before approving it and added a clause to give fourth-grade, seventh-grade and all high school students the option of remaining in their current schools next year as long as their parents could provide transportation.

Elementary and middle school students would be redistricted after they finish their current schools; high school students could stay in their current school through graduation.

The district does not know yet how many students will take it up on that grandfathering option.

CAPS said on its website that more than 100 families have donated more than $5,000 for the legal fight so far.

Parents originally intended to sue last week but delayed their plans for a few days because school board member John Crowder, 77, died of a stroke a few days after the vote.

He was the board member who made the motion to adopt redistricting. Crowder told the Observer the day after the vote that he had alerted some board members ahead of time about his motion but could not recall who he told.

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