Did group text between school board, superintendent violate NC open meetings law?

IREDELL COUNTY, N.C. — Channel 9 is digging deeper into a controversy involving text messages between members of the Iredell-Statesville school board.

We first reported last week about a group chat created between the seven school board members and the superintendent. We learned board members were using that group message to discuss topics that included the LGBTQ community, fights at Statesville High School and tax revenue.

Many people have brought up concerns to Channel 9′s Almiya White that text messages involving school district issues are a violation of the state’s open meetings law. White spent a week clarifying what is and isn’t allowed under those laws.

To be clear, it is always up to a judge to decide whether a public body has violated the law. However, three legal experts say the texts detailed in a 123-page document likely amount to a violation.

White obtained the document last week from Iredell-Statesville Schools. Board members used the chat, which dates back to December 2022, to discuss school business.

Channel 9 viewers brought it to our attention that this could be a violation of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law. White hopped on Zoom with Brooks Fuller, the director of North Carolina Open Government Coalition, to get an understanding of what is and isn’t allowed under that law.

“If the majority meets for the purpose of conducting public business, and that includes deliberations about public issues that are germane to their purpose, then that meeting has to be conducted openly,” he said.

“Did Iredell-Statesville school board members violate North Carolina Open Meetings Law?” White asked.

“The statute speaks very clearly, very loudly, that deliberations outside of public view by majority of the board are not allowed,” Fuller said.

Fuller is referring to this North Carolina statute, which has been around since the mid-1990s. It says official meetings include “communication by conference telephone or other electronic means of a majority of the members of a public body for the purpose of conducting hearings, participating in deliberations, or voting upon or otherwise transacting the public business.”

In the text chain, board members discussed controversial topics, as well as bond issues and increasing taxes, which Fuller said kept the public in the dark.

>> To read the entire exchange, click here.

On Dec. 21, Michael Kubiniec started the series of texts discussing ways to fund a new school. Doug Knight sent a text suggesting “a sales tax increase is really the only doable way at county level to fund school.” Brian Sloan followed by saying, “no easy solution. Sales tax would have to go up 50 cents.”

More ideas followed. Board member Abby Trent sent a text saying, “use the county occupancy tax to build schools instead of funding the city which consistently operates in a deficit each year.”

“This is exactly the type of business that is supposed to be conducted publicly,” Fuller said.

In addition to Fuller, Beth Soja and Amanda Martin -- both first amendment lawyers -- agreed the group text likely amounts to a violation of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law.

White also spoke with former Iredell-Statesville Schools Superintendent Terry Holliday about the text messages. He served as superintendent for seven years. Holliday said his board received guidance from the North Carolina School Boards Association regarding the open meetings law.

“It was always stressed that school board members have no authority unless they’re meeting as a school board, and that more than two or three are meeting together - then that had to be publicly announced,” Holliday said.

“They could be making decisions without the public being aware of their deliberations. So the public could easily lose trust,” he added.

Current Iredell-Statesville Schools Superintendent Jeff James declined to speak with White on camera. But in an email, he told White the intent of the group chat was to get information out fast, and to inform the board of bus accidents, schools on lockdown or security alerts.

James said the board did receive guidance on the open meetings law and was “at times remind[ed] the text group is for notifications.” He declined to comment on specific topics discussed in the group text.

Legal experts told Channel 9 there are no criminal consequences for violating the open meetings law. They said it is up to the public to enforce it by filing a lawsuit. That would have to be done within 45 days of the action coming to light.

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Almiya White

Almiya White, wsoctv.com

Almiya White is a reporter for WSOC-TV

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