Raleigh, N.C. — A lawsuit filed Thursday claims the Wake County Board of Education violated state law by limiting access to a key public meeting in March in which members adopted a resolution regarding a controversial idea to change the way the school system assigns students to schools.
A group of Wake County citizens who filed the 100-page complaint – many who were denied access to the meeting – wants the court to invalidate the actions taken at the March 23 meeting based on violations of the state's Open Meetings Law.
The board voted 5-4 that day on a directive to move forward with a plan that supports what's called community assignment zones, in which children go to schools closer to their homes, and move away from a decade-old policy of busing students so schools across the district are diverse.
The plaintiffs – represented by numerous civil rights groups and private attorneys – also want a judge to declare null and void policies and practices adopted since the meeting – including a May 4 vote on the new assignment policy.
They also want the court to require new, clear and consistent procedures be put in place to ensure that all members of the public who want to attend meetings are allowed to do so to effectively participate in the process.
"The school board's actions described in this complaint are clear violations of the Open Meetings Law," said Swain Wood, a Raleigh attorney serving as counsel for the plaintiffs. "The board should immediately put a stop to these actions, and should make it possible for all citizens to exercise their right to attend public meetings."
Michael Evans, a spokesman for the Wake County Public School System, had no comment Thursday on the complaint.
"We have yet to receive the lawsuit," he said. "It will be given to the board’s attorney for review and the board will take appropriate action at that time.”
Citing fire-safety concerns and complaints, the board distributed tickets to the public in advance of the March 23 meeting. Dozens of people lined the halls outside the meeting room.
The ticket policy, the lawsuit says, changed during the course of the day and that some people with tickets were told they could not leave the building or would lose their place while others were permitted to leave and return.
The complaint says the school board made no effort to make it possible for everyone to attend, even though larger venues were available, and made no attempt to provide adequate audio or video coverage of the meeting to the public waiting outside the meeting room."
"The defendants made that decision, in part, because they wanted to limit the number of members of the public who could attend and witness the meeting," the lawsuit states.
Public outcry against the proposal led to large numbers of people – many whom had to stand – showing up at school board meetings leading up to the March 23 vote to voice their support and opposition on the issue.
Proponents of the community-based assignment model say that parents will have more choices and more involvement in their children's schooling, while opponents say the plan will create pockets of poverty and resegregate the school system.