Education

Judge dismisses lawsuit against Wake school board

Posted May 14, 2010 4:46 p.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2010 12:17 p.m. EDT

— A Superior Court judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit against the Wake County Board of Education alleging that it violated state law by limiting access to a key public meeting in March.

Judge William Pittman ruled that the school board took reasonable measures to provide public access to the meeting, and he could not conclude "that any alleged violation was committed in bad faith for the purpose of evading or subverting the public policy embodied in the Open Meetings Law."

A group of Wake County citizens – many who were denied access to that meeting – wanted the court to reverse the actions taken at the March 23 meeting, in which members adopted a resolution regarding a controversial idea to change the way the school system assigns students to schools.

They alleged 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.

In addition, they claimed a ticket-distribution policy put in place prior to the meeting was unfair.

Pittman found the policy reasonable but said requiring ticketholders to remain on premises hours before the meeting and failing to make accommodations for members of the public who are disabled was unreasonable.

But he said the board is taking "reasonable action to implement measures to address alleged past violations of the Open Meetings Law."

"There are no grounds in law to invalidate any action of the board," he wrote.

Swain Wood, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called Pittman's ruling a significant victory.

"He really put the burden on the school board, going forward, to make sure their actions are in line with this order," Wood said.

"(The changes the board has made) were only put in place because members of the public were standing up – and also through letters, e-mails and this lawsuit – and saying you're being unreasonable," he said.

During the March 23 meeting, the board voted 5-4 to move forward with developing a student assignment policy in which children would go to schools closer to their homes. The model means moving away from a decade-old policy of busing students so schools across the district are diverse.

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 re-segregate the school system.

The debate has been emotional and drew large numbers of people for and against the idea at recent school board meetings.

The board voted May 4 on the actual policy and is expected to take a final vote at its May 18 meeting.

Several groups are urging people to attend the meeting in large numbers to demonstrate their opposition to the policy.