Transparent government. If it wasn’t apparent enough that those two words are an oxymoron, the Burke County Board of Education confirmed it with its decision to call an emergency-meeting on Thursday.
The meeting, which was announced at 6:12 p.m. on Wednesday night, offered the public and media less than 18-hours’ notice of the board’s intent to vote on returning Burke County Public Schools students back to school effective Feb. 9, according to the meeting agenda.
As reported on today’s front page, The News Herald questioned the legality of the meeting in an email Wednesday night, as we feel it violated public meetings law. The story on today’s front page lays out the General Statute regarding the requirements to call an emergency-meeting, to which the paper felt Thursday’s meeting did not rise.
On Thursday morning, News Herald reporters contacted two attorneys who specialize in public meetings laws and they, too, said that the legality of the meeting was questionable.
The newspaper felt only one item on Thursday’s agenda that could have constituted an “emergency” requiring “immediate consideration,” and that was a “time sensitive budget amendment to preserve funds.” However, that item was immediately removed from the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, further bringing into question what emergency existed. When the motion was made to approve the agenda, board member Wendi Craven was the only one to vote no.
While the agenda listed two items regarding the return of students to in-person learning in some form by Tuesday, Feb. 9, board attorney Chris Campbell and other members discussed the proposal in N.C. Senate Bill 37, which would call for the return of all students to some form of in-person learning.
Campbell and Superintendent Larry Putnam both pointed out that the bill had yet to become law, but it was brought up not once, not twice but three separate times during the meeting.
At one point, Campbell rose to say he was hearing that the bill would pass the senate Thursday or Friday, and could pass the house as early as Monday.
But it won’t even have its third read in the senate until Tuesday. Then, it still would have to go through three reads in the house before it would be passed and sent onto the governor’s desk.
Even then, the bill would not go into effect until 15 days after it becomes law, clearly showing that there was nothing on Thursday’s agenda that couldn’t have been addressed in a special-called meeting, which only requires 48-hours’ notice to the public.
Campbell told the board he felt their Feb. 22 start date would fit the requirements in the bill with the earliest action the general assembly could take, but that was a non-issue. The bill had not yet become a law, nor has it become law since the meeting.
Campbell and Putnam told board members the urgency was to make sure parents, teachers and staff had ample notice of any return to the classroom. If that truly were the case, then why did the agenda list Feb. 9 as the date of return that would be discussed and voted on? Many stakeholders – parents, teachers and staff – would agree that four-days’ notice to return to in-person learning would fall short of ample notice.
Consider the teachers who would’ve had only Friday and Monday to prepare for return to the classroom. Additionally, parents with children in day care could lose money or be penalized if they pull children from the program without prior notice.
When the motion was made to return children to school on Feb. 15, Craven spoke on behalf of working teens that would need more time to have their work schedules adjusted. The motion was then made to set the return date to Feb. 22, which passed unanimously.
Some may ask why this matters. The answer is these public meetings laws are there to ensure that elected governing bodies are transparent with the public. Not only did holding a meeting at noon on a weekday restrict working parents and teachers from attending or viewing the meeting, the YouTube live stream for the meeting was not mentioned in the public meeting notice, nor was it posted to the BCPS Facebook page. It was only active on the website for the duration of the meeting. As of this writing, the live stream link cannot be found in the meeting archives on the BCPS website. That begs the question of what the board and administration are trying to hide from the public.
After consulting with two attorneys on Thursday morning, The News Herald prepared a statement to read prior to the meeting, but the board denied our request. While they were within their legal boundary to do so, it leads one to question of why the attempt to suppress our statement?
Our statement, in part, read, “The News Herald is not taking offense at sending students back to school as soon as it is safe to do so. We will defer to public health experts on that determination.
“But if the board takes action today, the newspaper believes it is setting an unhealthy precedent for the future of open and transparent government in Burke County.
“It does a disservice to the constituents, who this board is elected to represent, to hold a meeting at short notice in the middle of a workday with no public comment session.”
Their decisions regarding the timing of the meeting and the accessibility of its live stream shows the lack of transparency the board afforded parents, teachers and staff.
The News Herald believes government can never be too transparent and a decision that affects so many lives could have waited 48 hours and should have allowed public comments. We also call on the school board to publish video recordings of their public meetings in a way that anyone can find and view them. If other local governments in Burke County, such as the board of commissioners and city of Morganton, can do it, so can the school board.