Education

Wake school board says lawsuit 'really about politics'

Posted May 13, 2010 5:56 p.m. EDT
Updated May 13, 2010 7:37 p.m. EDT

Wake County Public School System

— An attorney for the Wake County school board says his client went "above and beyond" to ensure its meetings have been conducted properly and to provide the public "ample opportunity" to attend and observe.

"This case is really about politics," Raleigh attorney Kieran Shanahan said in a response filed Thursday to a lawsuit alleging the Board of Education violated the state's Open Meetings Law with the way it handled key public meetings on March 23.

The board voted 5-4 that day on a directive to move forward with a controversial idea to assign students based on where they live rather than socio-economic factors. That would mean ending a longstanding policy of busing students to help create diversity in the system's schools.

"Plaintiffs, having failed to carry the day on their view on the Wake County school assignment policy, turn to the court, in what amounts to a political Hail Mary, seeking to delay and obstruct the Wake County Board of Education by collaterally attacking the process via an Open Meetings Law challenge to the board's actions," Shanahan wrote in the 34-page response.

The case goes before a Superior Court judge at 9:30 a.m. Friday in Wake County courtroom 5-C.

The board's community-assignment model has been controversial, with opponents expressing concerns about re-segregation and accusing some board members of being racist.

Public comment at previous board meetings drew large numbers of people. That prompted the school board to put in place a ticket-distribution policy, which they say was for personal and fire safety concerns.

But the plaintiffs – a group of Wake County citizens represented by numerous civil rights groups and private attorneys – say the board's actions kept them and numerous others from being a part of the meeting. The main meeting room at the Wake County Public School System's headquarters has a capacity of 153 people.

They want the court to invalidate the actions taken at the March 23 meeting and 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 and effectively participate in the process.

They plaintiffs allege that 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 ticket policy, their lawsuit says, changed during the course of the day, and 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.

But Shanahan outlines what he calls reasonable steps taken to try to accommodate as many people as possible at the meetings and argues that the Open Meetings Law doesn't guarantee "universal attendance."

"Contrary to Plaintiffs' unsupported claims, the Open Meetings Law does not provide individual members of the public with an absolute right to attend any specific public meeting," he wrote.

Citing a decision by the state Court of Appeals, he wrote that the law's purpose is to "conduct the public's business in public" and "to promote openness in the daily workings of public bodies."

At its May 4 meeting, the school board voted 4-3 in favor of the new assignment policy. A second vote is required, and opponents, like Great Schools in Wake Coalition, are urging large attendance at the May 18 meeting, when that vote is expected.

One group, calling itself the Student Army of Wake County, has set up a Facebook event inviting people to the event. Nearly 70 people had confirmed their attendance as of Thursday evening.

Shanahan said in his response that the school board has anticipated a large crowd for that meeting and has made efforts to accommodate the turnout by outfitting two meeting rooms with a video feed. That increases the capacity by 105 seats.