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Conflicting codes call Halifax votes into question

A few weeks ago, Halifax was a center of drama concerning the professional fate of Superintendent Elease Frederick. 

First, the board decided 2-1 to fire her in a surprise vote added to the agenda at the last minute. 

Then, only a few days later, four members of the board got together and reinstated the superintendent

But, just because things are back to where they started doesn’t mean everything is back to normal. 

Board member Charles Hedgepeth, the architect of Frederick’s firing, is alleging that various violations of Board policy occurred at the meeting to rehire her. 

First, he is saying that the Board did not have a quorum when they met to rehire the superintendent. 

He cites Policy Code 2341 of the Halifax County Board of Education Policy Manual. This code addresses quorums and says: “A quorum is defined as one more than half of the actual members of the board.” 

Hedgepeth is saying that there are seven members of the Board. Half of that is 3.5. Add one and you get 4.5, which he rounds up to 5. Only four members were present at the reinstatement meeting. 

Here’s where it gets tricky. The Halifax Board of Education operates under two different sets of codes. One is the policy manual on its website. The other is “Suggested Rules of Procedure for Local Government Boards,” put out by the University of North Carolina School of Government. 

According to these rules: “A majority of the actual membership of the board [excluding vacant seats] shall constitute a quorum. A majority is more than half.”

If half of the board is 3.5 members, then 4 constitutes a quorum. 

So, depending on which code you’re looking at, the board did, or did not, have a quorum. 

There is an additional problem arising from the policy Hedgepeth is citing. There have been questions surrounding the legitimacy of the meeting where the superintendent was fired. 

Hedgepeth, Vice-Chair Joyce Lashley, and board member Susie Lynch-Evans were the three who participated in the vote. Two members were absent that night, and two other members — Carolyn Hawkins and Claude Cooper — left the meeting in protest before the vote took place. Larry Armstrong, the attorney who consults with the board, said they still had a quorum for the vote because of the following provision: “A member who has withdrawn from a meeting without being excused by majority vote of the remaining members present shall be counted as present for purposes of determining whether or not a quorum is present.”

Even though only three board members remained, there had been five previously, and the two who left hadn’t been excused. So a quorum still existed for the firing of the superintendent. However, that is the rule under “Suggested Rules of Procedure for Local Government Boards.” Under the Board policy cited by Hedgepeth, no such rule exists. Instead, it says: “If a quorum is not present at any meeting, the chairperson will postpone the meeting until such time as a quorum can be present, provided adequate notice is given pursuant to the Open Meetings Law.”

So under this policy (the one cited by Hedgepeth to criticize the meeting where the superintendent was rehired) his meeting — where the superintendent was fired — was improper. 

Hedgepeth is also citing Policy Code 2335, dealing with advance delivery of meeting materials. 

This code says that the superintendent shall provide each Board member the proposed agenda, minutes of previous meetings that haven’t been approved, and “supporting information or materials that would assist board members to become informed of the issues proposed for board consideration.” This all has to happen at least five work days prior to the meeting, and it holds true whether the meeting is a regular one or a special meeting. 

Hedgepeth is saying that he didn’t receive a copy of the superintendent’s revised contract prior to the special meeting where she was reinstated. Regardless, the meeting was held only a few days after the meeting where she was fired, so any materials could not have been delivered by the five-day limit specified by the code. 

However, the “Suggested Rules of Procedure for Local Government Boards,” have this to say about special meetings.

“Special Meetings. The chair [or a majority of the members] may at any time call a special meeting of the board. At least forty-eight hours before a special meeting called in this manner, written notice of the meeting stating its time and place and the subjects to be considered shall be (1) given to each board member; (2) posted on the board’s principal bulletin board or, if none, at the door of the board’s usual meeting room; and (3) mailed or delivered to each newspaper, wire service, radio station, television station, and person who has filed a written request for notice with [the board’s clerk] [the board’s secretary] [a person designated by the board].”

So, under this provision, it appears the special meeting to rehire the superintendent was proper. 

So, who was right and who was wrong? It all depends on where you’re looking. 

One final complication. According to Board Policy Code 2340: “Except as otherwise provided by law or by the policies of the board, meetings of the board will be conducted in accordance with the Suggested Rules of Procedure for Small Local Government Boards.” 

This would appear to be saying that the Board policies trump “Suggested Rules of Procedure for Small Local Government Boards.” 

Ann McColl, attorney for Superintendent Frederick, said that the Board’s policies are confusing, but that the meeting to reinstate the superintendent was proper. 

“Could the Halifax County Board improve the clarity of their procedures? Yeah,” she said.

McColl also stressed that the meeting had four out of the seven members of the board — a majority. And Armstrong said that a majority could vote to change the policies the Board uses whenever they wish.

McColl said she’s not surprised that Hedgepeth continues “to try and stir things up.”

“I’m not saying that Charles is a bad person, but it keeps the Board’s momentum from moving forward,” she said.

The vote to fire the superintendent was a fluke. Three people participated in the vote, and it’s clear that if all members had been there, she wouldn’t have been dismissed. 

Hedgepeth said taking action to get rid of the superintendent was a campaign promise of his. One that he says he kept, along with moving Halifax Schools out of last place in the state (it recently moved from 115 to 113), and moving a pre-K program at the White Oak Head Start program to Hollister Elementary School. This was done because the kids who lived closer to Hollister were having to take several buses to attend pre-K at White Oak. 

These are just some of the promises he’s made good on, he said. Hedgepeth’s term is up in 2016.

Timing

Most Halifax Board of Education meetings are held in the late afternoons or evenings, but the meeting to reinstate the superintendent was held at 11:00 a.m. Absent from the meeting were all three board members who had participated in the vote to fire the superintendent. Hedgepeth and Lashley both voted to fire the superintendent. Lynch-Evans voted not to. 

When Hedgepeth got the email about the meeting, he said he called Board Chair Debbie Hardy to tell her he couldn’t attend because he was working in Hillsborough. He does outside sales for Carolina Plumbing Supply. 

Lynch-Evans is a teacher assistant at the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal School and said she couldn’t take off to attend the meeting.

“That one was just a bad time,” she said, adding, “I just didn’t think it was wise for me to leave.” 

Lashley said she didn’t attend because the meeting was to reinstate the superintendent. She had just voted to fire her and so didn’t want to participate in a meeting with the express purpose of reversing her decision. 

She said she would have attended if the meeting was being called simply to discuss the issue. 

Hardy said the timing of the meeting had nothing to do with not wanting Lashley, Evans, or Hedgepeth there. 

“We wanted it corrected as quickly as possible, so we could move forward and not go on and on and on,” she said. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.