Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member defends Mandarin vote and says he won’t resign

Students learn Chinese calligraphy in this file photo taken at Glenwood Elementary School in Chapel Hill.
Students learn Chinese calligraphy in this file photo taken at Glenwood Elementary School in Chapel Hill. N&O file photo

One of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board members who has come under fire for his actions surrounding a controversial vote on the future of Glenwood Elementary School says he will not resign.

James Barrett also says he will not recuse himself from future votes on the school, which the board in September voted 4-3 to make a Mandarin dual-language magnet school. The school currently houses both a Mandarin dual-language program and a traditional track for students zoned to attend Glenwood.

At the behest of board Chairwoman Rani Dasi, however, the board decided Tuesday night to revisit the magnet decision in December. Dasi, without singling out any board member by name, said board policies were violated around the vote.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board chairwoman Rani Dasi Courtesy of Rani Dasi

Some Glenwood parents have accused board members Barrett and Pat Heinrich of having improper contact with pro-magnet parents at Glenwood. Heinrich also has a daughter in the Mandarin program at Glenwood.

A group of Glenwood parents filed a public records request of Heinrich’s emails and text messages related to the topic. The documents, Dasi said, show that board members attended meetings to strategize with 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.

“I’ve always been available to anybody who wants to meet with me,” Barrett said. “Being accessible as a board member is important, and I don’t believe I did anything other than that.”

A Glenwood parent at Tuesday’s meeting called on Barrett and Heinrich to resign.

“I’ve always been a supporter of having dual-language options, and done in a cost-neutral way,” Barrett said, “so I support it and continue to support it. We knew it was going to be difficult. … To create division on the board is not healthy for the district.”

Heinrich could not be reached for comment for this story.

The board’s legal counsel cleared Heinrich of a conflict of interest in his vote.

Frayda S. Bluestein, a professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, concurred that Heinrich having a student at Glenwood was not a legal conflict of interest. Typically, a legal conflict of interest involves a monetary issue, she said.

Bluestein said she was not aware of anything that would make it illegal to work with members of the public on an issue.

She did, however, say local policies may have been violated, citing two policies in the board’s code of ethics: one admonishing board members from investigating or attempting to resolve complaints received personally, instead directing the complainant to follow the board’s complaint or grievance policies, and another putting the educational welfare of public school students above all other concerns.

The magnet plan was proposed in part to resolve overcrowding at the school. Students from the school’s traditional track would be moved to other schools under the plan, with a smaller number of students added to the Mandarin dual-language program.

Glenwood, the oldest CHCCS elementary, has 494 students enrolled this year. The school’s capacity by 2020 is 379 students.

Other proposals for the school that the district has discussed include reducing the size of the Mandarin program and changing the program to an elective model that would offer Mandarin to all Glenwood students for 45 minutes a day plus possible additional after-school or summer instruction.

In addition to their concerns about breaking up the school and moving some students elsewhere, parents have complained that turning Glenwood into a Mandarin magnet would create an elite academy for those lucky enough to get in through the lottery process. According to administration estimates, the plan would drop enrollment of black students to just six and Latinos to 12.

In addition to Heinrich and Barrett, board members Margaret Samuels and Amy Fowler voted in favor of the magnet proposal in September. Dasi and board members Joal Broun and Mary Ann Wolf cast the dissenting votes.

The vote was originally to start the 2019-20 school year with Glenwood as a magnet, but the administration Tuesday asked to delay implementation until 2020-21.

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