Union Co. judge rejects temporary restraining order in redistricting case

A judge rejected a temporary restraining order request Monday for Union County parents trying to stop the school board’s redistricting plan.

Parents claimed the plan was approved illegally after being developed in secret, and want the court to declare it invalid. Redistricting combats overcrowding by sending several thousand students to less crowded schools.

This was the initial hearing over the parents’ lawsuit.

Parent attorney George Sistrunk III said a temporary restraining order of up to 10 days was needed because all county residents faced an immediate harm from being “deprived of their rights to open and honest government. ... We believe a majority (of school board members) schemed behind closed doors” to hold a surprise vote approving redistricting March 4.

School board attorney Richard Schwartz denied anything was done illegally, and called the lawsuit “infuriatingly and palpably wrong.”

Superior Court Judge Tanya Wallace, at the end of the 90-minute hearing, said there was no irreparable harm without the temporary restraining order and denied the request.

She will hear additional motions Friday before taking up a preliminary injunction request on another date.

Many parents remain incensed over the March 4 vote. A final vote was not on the board’s agenda that night, and its approval was met by shouts and cries from the crowd.

In their lawsuit, parents contend that the board violated the state’s open meetings law by reaching a secret agreement without proper transparency, public debate and participation.

Board members were seen reading from prepared scripts on the redistricting motion, Sistrunk said, while two members opposed to the plan had not seen those scripts and did not know a vote was imminent.

Schwartz said the motion was written up for some board members the day of the vote, but there was nothing wrong with that, adding, “Governing bodies do that all the time.”

And he said the state open meetings law would not have prohibited discussions among board members outside of official meetings as long as a quorum was not present.

Sistrunk also argued that the school board excluded the public from key parts of the redistricting process, when, as an example, meetings were held in rooms so small that not everyone who wanted to attend could get in.

Schwartz said overflow rooms were available to the public to observe meetings, which also were broadcast live online.

Before the plan was modified March 4, the countywide redistricting had about 5,800 of 41,800 students, or 14 percent of the total, switching schools.

The board changed the plan 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 provide transportation.

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

The district does not yet know how many students will use that grandfathering option.

Parents fighting redistricting say they don’t want their children’s lives disrupted with new schools and longer bus rides to facilities that might be older or have lower test scores. Some worried about the impact redistricting could hold on neighborhood property values.

School leaders have repeatedly said they needed redistricting in place by April 1 to give them enough time to implement it at the start of the 2014-15 school year.