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Halifax School Board ousts superintendent… for now

Less than two months after the start of the school year, the Halifax Board of Education has fired its superintendent, but the move is unlikely to last long. 

At Monday’s board meeting, the members present voted 2-1 to fire Superintendent Elease Frederick, according to both board member Charles Hedgepeth and the attorney representing the board, Larry Armstrong. Chair Debbie Hardy said in an email that a special meeting will be held Thursday on reinstating the superintendent, though she would not offer further comment.

At least one state official is not happy that the superintendent was removed.

“It’s something that can’t be allowed to stand,” said State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey.

Monday, the meeting was down two board members — Hardy and Board Member Donna Hunter — to begin with, according to Armstrong and Hedgepeth. That left only five board members to run the meeting. But that is still a quorum.

At the meeting, Hedgepeth said he wanted to put on the agenda the proposal to dismiss the superintendent.

Despite the objections of two board members, Carolyn Hawkins and Claude Cooper, the board voted to put the item on the agenda, Armstrong said. A heated closed session discussion ensued, Hedgepeth said, and ultimately Cooper and Hawkins left the meeting before the vote on the superintendent’s dismissal took place. 

“They got mad and walked out,” Hedgepeth said. 

That left only three board members in the meeting: Hedgepeth and Vice Chair Joyce Lashley voted to fire the superintendent, and Susie Lynch-Evans voted not to, according to Hedgepeth. 

Three members does not constitute a quorum, but Armstrong said under the rules used by the board, the vote was proper. 

“You can’t defeat a quorum by leaving a meeting, which is what they did,” he said. 

WRAL is reporting that “officials” said “A minority of the board – three of seven members – cannot take a binding vote to fire someone.”

Rrspin.com reported that the Halifax County Black Caucus released a statement on the matter. They quoted the statement as saying: 

“Being awakened in the middle of the night to be informed that two members on the Halifax County Board of Education voted to immediately fire the superintendent, Dr. Elease Frederick is absolutely incredulous,” the statement said. “While we do not have all the facts at this time, the Advisory Council of the Halifax County Black Caucus wants to make it clear that it does not support political shenanigans by an insidious group that has only personal interest in mind. From the voters on her termination, there is very seldom, if any, issue raised about children and their education, only about who has been hired and how much money is being spent.”

The article also reported the statement as saying that the caucus’s advisory council:

“Wants to know where was the school board attorney who allowed three people to carry on a meeting where there was not a quorum of members? We hope that the DPI will know that citizens are not accepting of this kind of behavior and hope they will immediately intervene because citizens are calling for Dr. Frederick’s prompt reinstatement and a full investigation into the actions of the Halifax County School Board.”

Hedgepeth has wanted to get rid of the superintendent for some time. Time and time and time again, he has criticized her publicly and called for her resignation. 

One of the main issues he has brought up, and one of the reasons he gave Tuesday for wanting to dismiss her, was her contract. 

He says the board never voted on it. 

In a letter to a local paper in May, he wrote:

“During the July 2012 board of education meeting, Donna Hunter, former Board Chair, commented that Dr. Frederick’s contract had been extended through June 30, 2016. I objected because the matter was never discussed in closed or open session and officially voted on by the Halifax County Board of Education to extend Dr. Frederick’s contract through June 30, 2016.”

The consent agenda for that meeting only has the following vague language on matters of personnel: 

“Recommendations for Administrative, Certified, Non-Certified, Transfers, Reassignments and Resignations, as discussed in closed session.”

“We did not vote on that contract. It’s not on there who you hired, who you extended,” Hedgepeth said Tuesday in an interview. “She did not have a legally binding contract.”

According to the closed session minutes for that meeting, the topic was discussed. 

“Dr. D Hunter shared with the board a copy of the superintendent’s new contract. We are looking at the data. Student achievement is moving in the right direction. We will be asking to renew the contract for two (2) years (2014-2016),” the closed session minutes state.

The closed session minutes also have a copy of the contract signed by both the superintendent and then-board chair Donna Hunter.

According to the open session minutes of that meeting, the consent agenda was approved by all board members except Hedgepeth.

Hedgepeth maintains that the board did not vote on the contract and that he did not see the contract at that meeting.

Hedgepeth also said Tuesday he wanted to dismiss the superintendent for “breach of contract,” related to misinformation he says she has given the board about salaries, bonuses, enrollment, and other issues.

An October 7, 2013 letter from the State Board and Chairman Bill Cobey notified the Halifax Board that the State Board had been made aware of “disruptive, uncooperative and obstructionist” behavior from some members of the Halifax board, and listed the following as one example:

“requesting monthly the resignation of the Board Chair and Superintendent.”

In August of this year, the state board sent another letter to Halifax stating its intent to intervene further in the district. It listed a number of directives, including one saying that all employment actions in Halifax require pre-approval from the state. 

Cobey said the Halifax Board’s dismissal of the superintendent is not consistent with the state’s directive. 

“I’d stayed tuned to see what is going to be done to right the ship again,” he said. 

The special meeting on Thursday is at 11:00 am. In the meantime, Assistant Superintendent Tyrana Battle is serving as interim superintendent, according to Hedgepeth.

Former Superintendent Frederick could not be reached for comment. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.