Robeson County school board likely violated state law by banning public, attorney says

By Sarah Nagem

Carrie Oxendine had something to say to the Robeson County school board members: Enforce the school district’s mask mandate, or give families like hers the option for virtual learning.  

Oxendine, whose daughter attends Purnell Swett High School near Pembroke, submitted her comments to the board through an online form earlier this month. It’s the only option available since the school board banned the public from attending its meetings during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I don’t even know if they read it,” Oxendine said of her two-sentence message to the board. 

The school board’s decision to keep the public out has frustrated families. 

And, at least in some cases, it has likely violated state law. 

While North Carolina is in a COVID-19 state of emergency, local governing boards can hold their meetings remotely, said Beth Soja, an attorney in Charlotte who specializes in media and the First Amendment. 

But at least one board member must attend virtually if the public is barred from attending in person, she said. If the full board meets in person, the public must be allowed to attend in person. 

A review by the Border Belt Independent shows the full school board in Robeson County has met in person at least seven times since the change in state law went into effect last May. On each occasion, the public was prohibited from attending. 

“If they are all meeting in person and they are not allowing the public in, they are violating the law,” Soja said.

Gordon Burnette, a spokesman for the school district, said he wanted to discuss the matter with the school board’s attorney before commenting. He did not respond by the time this story was published. 

Burnette did say the low vaccination rate and high COVID positivity rate in Robeson County are factors in keeping the public away. 

Forty-five percent of Robeson’s population has received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, well below the statewide rate. As of early this week, the county had a 14-day testing positivity rate of 31%, roughly on par with the statewide rate, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Oxendine said that reasoning doesn’t make much sense to her. 

“You want to have your meetings virtual and not let (anyone) come to the meetings, but you send our kids to school around everybody,” she said. “I can’t understand that.” 

Burnette also said the board’s meeting room is undergoing an upgrade that is expected to be finished in mid-February. 

During the Jan. 11 school board meeting, school officials said technical constraints are a concern, and it would take some logistical maneuvering to figure out how to allow members of the public to participate virtually. 

Concerns about virtual school

The full board met in person most recently in November, a review of meeting minutes shows. During that meeting, one member was absent. Soja said a member’s absence should not change the rules regarding public attendance.  

The full board, with no one absent, met at least four times since May, according to the minutes.

At this month’s meeting, one board member attended virtually. 

Many school boards, including the board in Robeson County, switched to virtual meetings in 2020 as people stayed home during statewide COVID lockdowns. 

Nearly two years into the pandemic, some school boards have returned to in-person meetings while continuing to stream their meetings online. Some have utilized technology such as Zoom to allow people to address board members remotely.   

In Robeson County, which serves more than 20,000 students, school board meetings are streamed live on YouTube. There is no traditional public-comment period, and the board does not discuss the public comments submitted through the online forms. 

Education advocates say it’s important for the public to be able to address local school boards, which are responsible for a wide range of duties, from hiring superintendents to setting face-mask policies. 

Three of the four public comments submitted for this month’s meeting were about COVID safety. The other concerned what was described as mold in a building. The comments, which are public record, are posted online. 

Oxendine, the parent, said she has never attended a school board meeting. But she said she would have considered it this month to deliver her message directly. 

With the rise in COVID cases, she wants the district to return to remote learning for a couple of weeks. She said she grew concerned when her daughter told her that many students weren’t wearing masks properly. 

“It feels like they don’t want to hear what people have got to say,” she said of the board. 

The Robeson County school board met in person on Nov. 9, 2021. None of the board members participated virtually, but the public was banned from attending in person – a likely violation of state law.
Screenshot from YouTube

During the meeting, officials said they had no plans for any of the district’s 36 schools to return to virtual learning. 

“Virtual should not even be discussed,” said board member Dwayne Smith. “Virtual needs to be down there at the Lumber River, because (students) do not learn from virtual.” 

It would be tough for the entire district to make the switch to virtual learning, due to a change in state law. Now, schools can go remote only if they do not have enough staff members to serve students or if a lot of students are in quarantine. 

“We’re bound by policies and procedures, what we can and cannot do,” said Freddie Williamson, superintendent of Robeson County schools. 

‘I’ll listen to anybody’

During their meeting last week, school board members said they wanted to rethink how to handle public comments. 

One suggestion was to have a board member or someone else in the boardroom read aloud previously submitted comments. But the idea was struck down, and that setup would also likely be in violation of the law since the public would still be barred from attending. 

“When you read everything that’s written down, sometimes it’s not very nice,” said school board member Craig Lowry. “You can’t pick and choose what you want to read.” 

Some school boards across North Carolina and the country have seen major pushback during the pandemic. In Robeson County, the school board has dealt with angry parents before. 

In 2017, about 150 people attended a forum to voice their concerns and opinions after the board suddenly fired the district’s superintendent, The Fayetteville Observer reported at the time. The board then quickly offered – and just as quickly rescinded – the job to an out-of-state educational consultant. 

Current school board Chairman Mike Smith, who also served on the board in 2017, said board members aren’t trying to keep the public away now. 

“I don’t have a problem with anybody coming, and I’ll listen to anybody say whatever they have to say,” Smith said during the meeting last week. “I don’t have a problem with that, as long as they’re courteous and professional. They start cussing and having a fit, then I have a problem.” 

YouTube views

The North Carolina School Boards Association does not track the meeting methods of school boards for the state’s 115 districts, said Bruce Mildwurf, director of government relations. NCSBA is a membership organization that supports local school boards, including the board in Robeson County, he said. 

Burnette, the district spokesman, said he thought Robeson County was unique in its approach to meetings. 

“We’re probably one of the only ones that doesn’t allow the public in right now,” he said of school boards across the state. 

Some advocates have said virtual school board meetings increase the public’s  involvement. Some parents and guardians who may not be able to attend meetings in person because of work, transportation or other issues can more easily tune in virtually. 

By Tuesday, this month’s meeting of the Robeson school board had been viewed more than 1,500 times on YouTube

Soja said the Robeson school board likely isn’t alone in violating the law by barring the public from attending in-person meetings when the full board is present. But she said the rules are important. 

“If you don’t have one member of the body virtual,” she said, “then it’s very easy to forget that you’ve got a virtual audience.” 

Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem