Closed session notes obtained by EducationNC show that the Halifax Board of Education may regularly violate open meeting laws during its closed sessions, denying the public access to discussions it is entitled to hear.
The minutes of closed sessions during the Board’s October 5th meeting reveal a discussion between the Board and the attorney that represents it about how it conducts its closed session meetings. Generally, the Board has held its closed session meetings first at 5:30 p.m. and then opens the meeting to the general public for the open session around 7:00 p.m. Attorney Larry Armstrong warned the board that its practices are questionable.
“We are very lax in compliance with the Open Meetings Law. And just tonight you’ve been talking about various things during the closed session. And what the law requires you to do is go into closed session for a particular reason. Deal with that reason and go back in open session. And for many years you’ve been allowing an hour and a half for closed session. And I’ve always told the superintendent if you ever get sued for violating the Open Meetings Law somebody’s going to come in and put into evidence that you’ve allowed a hour and a half for your closed session routinely, which opens the door to discussion about issues that are not appropriate for closed session. So I think it’s been a problem for a long time.”
A little later, Armstrong says: “…we need to be more respectful of the Open Meetings Law. And I think we don’t need to have an hour and a half set aside where you may only have ten minutes of legitimate closed session business.”
More Closed Session Revelations
The minutes also reveal more information about the circumstances surrounding the firing of Superintendent Elease Frederick during that October 5th meeting.
Both Charles Hedgepeth and then-Vice Chair Joyce Lashley called at a November 2 meeting for the closed session minutes to be released from this October 5 meeting. Hedgepeth was concerned that some people thought the vote to dismiss Frederick was illegal.
He said he hoped that if the closed session minutes were released, the public could see that the attorney representing the Board had been consulted and had said the vote was legal.
“I’d like to know who was legal and who was not legal when we voted to dismiss Dr. Frederick,” he said.
Board Chair Debbie Hardy rebuffed the pair’s attempts to make the minutes public.
“They are closed session minutes so we can’t read them out here anyway,” she said.
Argument continued, but Hardy eventually pushed the meeting past the issue.
“We’re done with that,” she said.
The minutes obtained by EducationNC show that Armstrong did indeed uphold the legality of the action. The crux of the controversy revolves around the number of board members available for the vote. Two board members were absent that night, and two other members — Carolyn Hawkins and Claude Cooper — opposed the vote and left the meeting suddenly before it happened, leaving only Hedgepeth, Lashley, and Susie Lynch-Evans.
In the closed session minutes, Armstrong said that “A member who has withdrawing [sic] from the meeting without being excused by a majority vote of the remaining members present shall be counted as present for the purposes of determining whether or not a quorum is present.”
Because Hawkins and Cooper, the two members who left the meeting before the vote, weren’t excused, they still counted as present for the establishment of a quorum, according to Armstrong. So, despite the fact that only three members remained, for purposes of the quorum, five members were technically considered present.
However, also in the closed session notes are numerous attempts by Armstrong to dissuade the board members present from dismissing the superintendent.
He said he had advised Hedgepeth many times about trying to dismiss the superintendent. “Dr. Frederick has already retained a lawyer. I will defend whatever action you take, but you’re going to lose the lawsuit.”
He goes on to explain that Hedgepeth has not called for the dismissal of the superintendent in the past because he didn’t have enough votes on his side.
“So tonight, the first time you don’t have two people that are on the other side you take action,” he said in the closed session minutes. “What’s going to happen if you go to rescind this contract, the majority’s going to come back next month, or probably at a called meeting tomorrow and hire her back. so you’re not going to get away with it to start with.”
Armstrong also listed the various ways in which Hedgepeth’s arguments for firing the superintendent wouldn’t hold up in court.
On the issue of whether the superintendent has a valid contract — Hedgepeth argues she doesn’t — Armstrong said there is a lot of evidence that she does.
“…[Y]ou’ve operated under that contract for three years and a — three and fourth years of a four year contract. And any superior court judge would take that and he would look at it and say, you know, I’m not going to let you say after three and fourth years of operating under this contract you don’t have a contract. You’ve got a contract.”
He also says that the Board could try to fire her for poor performance but that past Board statements would offer evidence against that.
“Just last summer you gave her a very good evaluation where everybody except Mr. Hedgepeth said she’s doing a good job, as far as the evaluation is concerned. All the expert witnesses from DPI are going to testify that she’s doing a credible job.”
He also went on to say that given the fact that Frederick is retiring in 2016, it doesn’t make sense to fire her.
“Why are we going to spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to fire somebody who’s already told you she’s going to retire in a few months?”
The closed session discussion between Hawkins and Hedgepeth also got tense prior to Hawkins’ departure.
At one point, Hawkins said of Hedgepeth: “I don’t respect him.” And a moment later she said: “…a high school graduate made a decision like this. No, I don’t respect it at all.”
Before leaving, she said: “You all just carry on with your meeting. It’s been your meeting for three years. Carry on with it. I’m out of here.”
Later, Hedgepeth said to the court reporter who takes notes at the meetings that he hoped she took down everything Hawkins said: “I am so tired of Ms. Hawkins, Mr. Cooper, and Dr. Donna Hunter always talking about my high school diploma. That high school diploma is kicking their ass. Don’t forget to write that one. It’s kicking their ass.”
Consequences of the Firing
The Halifax County Board of Education meets today with a slightly different structure and a significant split between its members.
That structural change stems from the sudden dismissal of Frederick back in October.
That vote, initiated by Hedgepeth, Lashley, and Lynch-Evans — who agreed to hold the vote but voted to keep Frederick — illustrated a factional split in the Board. At the meeting to reinstate the superintendent days later, the three members who participated in the dismissal were absent and the four other board members voted for the reinstatement.
As a result of all this, at the November 2 Board meeting, Hawkins added to the agenda a vote to change the vice chair of the Board from Lashley to Cooper.
She made her motion by mentioning that when board member Donna Hunter had been chair, she had been removed because of her opposition to then-superintendent Geraldine Middleton.
The vote to add the motion to the agenda was split down the factional lines mentioned above: Hedgepeth, Lashley, and Lynch-Evans on one side, and Hawkins, Hunter, and Cooper on the other. Board Chair Hardy broke the tie in support of the motion. The actual vote, held toward the end of the meeting, went along the same lines, and ultimately Cooper became the new vice chair, but not before Hedgepeth made a few comments.
“I’d like to know what Ms. Lashley did so wrong that you’re trying to remove her from vice chair?” he asked. Also saying: “Because you all don’t get your way, you get mad and take it personal.”