Redistricting dispute headed for court

Mar. 18, 2014 @ 05:04 PM

Parents groups in Union County filed a lawsuit against the Union County Board of Education Monday. 

The suit, Kim Hillegas, et al. v. Union County Board of Education and Union County Public Schools, allege that the school board violated the Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act. The lawsuit states that the board stonewalled parents and held a surprise vote at their March meeting. 

“Defendant BOE has attempted to pass a redistricting plan which was developed in secret at meetings of the Facilities Committee, where certain BOE members and the public were excluded,” the lawsuit states in the conclusion. “The plan was finalized in secret in advance of a meeting at which the distributed agenda was phrased in a manner to mislead the public as to the acts to be taken at the meeting. It was passed in complete disregard for stakeholder concerns, without proper consideration of alternatives, and at a time when Defendant BOE still doesn’t know what the result will be of its litigation with the BOCC and, therefore, what alternatives may be available.” 

The plaintiffs, a group of parents from the county, are requesting that the court enter a temporary restraining order  to halt the continuation of the current redistricting plan, prohibit the school board form taking any action concerning school redistricting until the school board rectifies the public records requests. 

They also request the court enter a preliminary and permanent injunction, preventing the school board and UCPS from taking further action with the current redistricting planned prohibit the school board from taking any redistricting actions until the outstanding public records requests are filled. 

The group had initially planned to file last week, but delayed filing until Monday due to the death of Board member John Crowder.

“The public will not stand idly by as a faction of the Board of Education implements a hidden, personal agenda,” Citizens for Adequate Public Schools, an advocacy group, wrote in a press release. “We will not accept the intentional withholding of information. We will not accept being excluded from meaningful participation in public meetings. We will not accept a scripted ‘vote,’ rushed precisely to limit our inquiry and opposition. We will not accept our elected officials being systematically excluded from the process and prevented from representing us. This is not the open and transparent government that so many of us in Union County hold so dear.”

Board Chairman Richard Yercheck said in previous interviews that he was approached by Crowder and others to pass the resolution at the March 4 meeting. He said that he, along with Attorneys Michele Morris and Richard Schwartz, drafted the resolution that was presented that night. They wrote main resolution, along with two amendments proposed by Board members Rick Pigg and Mike Guzman. 

“CAPS’ clear purpose is to stop the Board of Education’s massive school redistricting plan so that real solutions to our school system’s problems can be found, after considered thought and open debate” the group wrote in their statement. “Thus, the present lawsuit is necessary for the good of all, in the face of a Board of Education that simply does not care.”

The controversial redistricting plan, including proposed maps, was unveiled at a facilities committee meeting in January. The school board held two public work sessions and there were two public comment nights for parents. 

R.C. Olsen, a member of CAPS, said they have been working as groups on the outstanding issues and it boiled dow to a couple of key groups doing statistical work and doing the legal research. 

He said they filed the lawsuit because the school board shut them out on practically everything. 

“They gave us no input, so we had no other choice,” Olsen said. 

He said there was a similar lawsuit filed in Wake County, but the group did not specify terms and grounds. He said their lawsuit cites specific terms, those being the violation of open records and public meetings laws. 

“There’s a clear lack of transparency,” Olsen said. 

Olsen said they are still hoping to work with the school board to come up with a solution, something that numerous parents have said throughout this process. 

“Our ideal outcome is for the courts to honor the temporary restraining order and force the injunction so that we can all sit down and come up with a practical solution for this redistricting in one form or another,” he said. He added that could be a smaller redistricting, mobile classrooms or another solution. 

Olsen said they did not think the process would end in a lawsuit. 

“This is the last thing we wanted,” he said. “We really wanted to work with them. We had done a lot of the leg work”

He said the parents did a lot of their own research when told that the school system had limited staff and was unable. 

“We had gone and tried to provide them meaningful information and everything was discounted,” Olsen said. “We were really hoping they would bring us to the table and have really open dialogue.” 

Olsen said that decisions by the county commissioners and a bill being discussed by the General Assembly (Senate Bill 236) will also come into play in the discussion. 

“Our hope is that this is not just for Union County, that this becomes a statewide issue and we can revamp the entire way this process goes on in North Carolina,” he said. 

He added that people should have a say in what happens to the children and that the schools board is somewhat insulated form voters is “very disheartening.” 

Attorney Richard Schwartz said Tuesday they are not in a position to make a statement at this time.