Raleigh, N.C. — What happened behind closed doors between Wake County Board of Education members last month when the board fired its school superintendent could be difficult to overcome for the politically divided governing body of North Carolina's largest school system, observers say.
Board member Debra Goldman filed a police report accusing the board's vice chairman, Keith Sutton, of threatening her on Sept. 25, the same day the school board voted 5-4 to fire then-Superintendent Tony Tata. The move came after two days of contentious talks. Republicans, including Goldman, voted not to fire Tata. Sutton and four other Democrats voted to dismiss him.
The police report, obtained Thursday by WRAL News, claims simple assault and communicating threats, but Cary police closed the case, indicating the accusations were unfounded.
Goldman did not respond to calls seeking comment, but Sutton called the accusation "a distortion" of what went on during the closed-session meeting, saying that the debate was heated but never threatening.
"The Cary Police Department never approached me. They never talked about it," Sutton said, adding that he saw the report for the first time Wednesday.
School board Chairman Kevin Hill was out of town Thursday and did not respond to questions about the meeting.
It's the latest blemish for the school board, which faces a number of challenges, including an investigation by a national accreditation group over how the board operates, public criticism over Tata's controversial firing, how to deal with the ever-growing student population and a decision to overhaul a three-year student assignment plan less than a year after it was first put in place.
"It's been a divided board, obviously now, since 2009, and what we're seeing is just that these differences are so, so deep and the level of animosity is so personal that it's going to be very difficult for them to come together on anything," North Carolina State University political science professor Andy Taylor said Thursday.
"You've got a school assignment policy that is in flux, a heavily divided board and a frustrated populace. I mean, it's a very difficult situation," he added.
Taylor, who is co-authoring a book about the Wake County school system, said the police report, coupled with a police report from two years ago that surfaced last week, could worsen the board's problem.
In the June 2010 report, Goldman accused fellow board member Chris Malone of stealing more than $100,000 in cash and property from her home. It also detailed an alleged romantic relationship in 2009 and 2010 between Malone and Goldman. Both are married, although Goldman is now estranged from her husband.
"The amount of personal animosity is just very, very deep, and what has been revealed over the last few days can only add to that," Taylor said.
The accusations against Malone were also unfounded, according to investigators' case notes and a police report, which were delivered anonymously last week to WRAL News and at least one other news outlet.
Goldman said in a written statement on Monday that the release of the notes, which aren't part of public record, is an attempt to derail her campaign for state auditor.
Malone is also running for a seat in the state House of Representatives.
The source of the documents is unclear. Cary Police Chief Pat Bazemore has verified them as being authentic and has launched an investigation into who might have leaked them. Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby says he doesn't believe anyone in his office did, and he has "complete confidence" that no one at the Cary Police Department would have done so.
In addition to how the 2010 claims and the latest involving Sutton might affect the current school board, there are also questions about Goldman's past actions on the board – specifically whether she voted in October 2010 against a version of the Republican-backed student assignment plan because of Malone.
In the 2010 police notes, Goldman denied that she and Malone's relationship was anything more than friendship, but former board chairman Ron Margiotta said Thursday that it's possible the relationship and theft accusations swayed her vote.
"Now that I've learned that the date Malone was disqualified as a candidate for the burglary of her house, it certainly coincides with the time that she came in with the directive to stop us," Margiotta said.
"I'm not sure that was the reason," he added. "She felt she wasn't involved enough. It had to do with ego more than anything else."
Taylor said that, although he couldn't be completely sure about Goldman's motive, he didn't think it was completely for personal reasons.
"I knew for a fact that she did get a lot of pressure from constituents on the issue," he said.
As for both Goldman's and Malone's political careers, it's unclear how they might be affected by the police reports.
An online petition is already circulating for them to resign from the school board for violating "ethical commitments they pledged to uphold."
With the election less than two weeks away, Taylor said he believes it will be difficult for Goldman to win against Democratic incumbent Beth Wood.
"Even in the governor's debate last night, (Republican) Pat McCrory effectively endorsed Beth Wood," Taylor said. "He basically said she's done a great job, and he distanced himself from Debra Goldman. I think it's going to be very difficult for her."
"For Chris Malone, maybe not so," he continued. "That's a Republican district, and in the news reports of the aftermath of this, the focus has been on Goldman rather than Malone. It's possible, still, that Malone can win."
If Goldman loses, Taylor said, "she's going to then have a decision to make."
Still, he wonders if the Democratic board majority would want either her or Malone to step down if they lose their races.
"It makes the Democrats, perhaps, look good, and to have Goldman and Malone still on the board might be something that might work in their favor," Taylor said. "Were they to leave, questions then come back as to, 'Why did you fire Superintendent Tata?'"
"There are a significant number of people who are kind of middle of road on school board issues who were supportive of him continuing," Taylor added.
After Tata's dismissal, Hill said that the school system and school board will move forward.
For Margiotta, who chaired the board from December 2009 until 2011, the question is "How?" considering the recent reports about the heated debate over Tata's firing and Goldman's police report against Sutton.
"I don't know," he said, admitting that, during his time as board chairman, there were serious disagreements between members. "But (they) were able to get along and could disagree but show respect for each other. This is so far out of hand with what's going on right now."
"What's suffering is the overall body – the school system, the school board," he added. "Regardless of who's there or what disagreements there are, that's losing the trust of the public."