The chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board apologized Tuesday night for circumstances surrounding a vote to create a Mandarin dual-language magnet school at Glenwood Elementary and asked the board to reconsider its decision.
Rani Dasi questioned fellow board members’ ethics in making the magnet decision. She did not name anyone, but parents have accused board members Pat Heinrich and James Barrett of having improper contact with pro-magnet parents at Glenwood.
The board voted 4-3 on Sept. 20 to create the magnet school, starting at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, in part to alleviate overcrowding at Glenwood, the oldest elementary school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district.
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The school currently houses both a Mandarin dual-language program and a traditional track for students zoned to attend Glenwood.
The board held a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the logistics of the switch, at which Superintendent Pamela Baldwin asked the board to consider delaying the implementation of the magnet program, which would involve moving the traditional track students to other schools, until the start of the 2020-21 school year.
Dasi made her apology after the staff presentation, saying she was surprised to see the magnet proposal on the Sept. 20 agenda because it was a regular board meeting where a vote would be expected. Such a controversial topic should have first come up, she said, in a work session, where votes are not generally taken.
“When the board voted to approve a school-wide Mandarin dual-language magnet at Glenwood, we did not follow our process, and for that I apologize,” she said.
Dasi, along with board members Mary Ann Wolf and Joal Broun, cast the dissenting votes in September.
Heinrich, who has a daughter in the Mandarin program at Glenwood, Barrett and board members Margaret Samuels and Amy Fowler voted in favor of creating a magnet at Glenwood.
The board’s legal counsel has cleared Heinrich of conflict-of-interest charges, but parents made a public records request of his emails and text messages related to the topic. Dasi said she had reviewed those documents and was troubled by what they reveal.
After reading the correspondence, Dasi said, “I’m even more deeply concerned about board conduct related to the decision.”
The documents, she said, show that board members attended meetings to support one side of the issue, assisted with rebuttals against CHCCS administration, gave information gained by virtue of being on the board to one side and referenced teachers who were not supportive of their position by name.
“This active strategizing and sharing information with one specific group,” Dasi said, “raises grave concerns about board governance and the board’s role as impartial decision makers. This is not the way an elected board should make decisions and not the way our policy directs engagement.”
Neither Heinrich nor Barrett responded to Dasi’s comments at the meeting.
The board decided to put the issue on the agenda for a December meeting.
Glenwood has 494 students enrolled this year. The school’s capacity by 2020 is 379 students. Even if the Mandarin program wasn’t expanded, the school board would have to redistrict some students to comply with the law passed by the General Assembly that caps the number of students in kindergarten through third-grade traditional classrooms.
The class-size reductions began this year statewide and will be phased into the next three years. By the 2021-22 school year, kindergarten classes will be capped at 18, first grade at 16, and second and third grades at 17. Dual language classes are exempt from the class-size law.
Before the board decided to revisit the issue, eight Glenwood teachers read a statement in which they said CHCCS administration asked them to come up with a proposal of their own. They said their proposal was never considered and instead the board made the Mandarin magnet decision.
After Dasi made her apology and the board agreed to take up the matter next month, one of the teachers, Caroline Hatley, was more optimistic.
“I think that there was some very necessary transparency,” Hatley said, “around some of the unethical acts that took place by board members, which was appreciated, and I think that there are now options to go back to the drawing board.”
Staff writer Camila Molina contributed to this report.