Court considers legality of tickets for school board meetings

Posted February 24, 2011 10:43 a.m. EST
Updated February 24, 2011 6:09 p.m. EST

Wake County Public School System

— The North Carolina Court of Appeals heard arguments Thursday about a ticket policy established last year by the Wake County Board of Education.

A group of parents and citizens filed suit in May saying that, by requiring tickets to its March 23 meeting, the school board violated a state law that requires public meetings be open.

Citing fire-safety concerns and complaints, the board distributed tickets to the public in advance of its March 23 meeting. The agenda that day featured a controversial vote to move forward with a plan to assign children to schools closer to their homes, and move away from a decade-old policy of busing students so schools across the district are diverse.

Crowds of people both in favor of the policy change and opposed to it had crowded previous meetings at which the issue was discussed. 

Mark Dorosin, the lawyer for the plaintiff, insisted Thursday that the school board should have anticipated the overflow crowd and moved the meeting to a place that could accommodate more people.

A superior court judge dismissed the lawsuit in May, but the group pressed on Thursday, saying their case has merit. "This is one more step in shutting down public opinion," said Judy Pidcock.

Dorosin said the school board made no effort to make it possible for everyone to attend, even though larger venues were available.

"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.

The plaintiffs 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. 

"Open meetings laws are designed so that the public business is conducted in the open. It's not designed so that each and every member of the public has an absolute, unfettered right to be present in the board room," said Kieran Shanahan, attorney for the school board.

"The media was in there. There was a live stream. So they were doing some things to provide access to the public," a judge pointed out.

"Open meetings says public has a right to attend. It doesn't say that the media can attend, and that will supplant public's right to attend these meetings to observe what's happening and participate in those meetings," said Dorosin.

He pointed specifically to the meeting of the Committee of the Whole, which was held in the smaller board room. Access to that room on March 23 was limited to board members, staff and members of the media.

Dorosin told the judges that if they agreed that streaming video was sufficient, they would set a precedent for public bodies to exclude the public from all meetings.

The Court of Appeals will not rule on the case immediately. Rulings generally take a couple of month.