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Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board talks transparency after Mandarin magnet-school vote

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

In the wake of a controversial vote last fall to create a dual-language Mandarin magnet school at Glenwood Elementary, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board talked Thursday about board policies and transparency.

The two board members who have angered some Glenwood parents with their actions surrounding the vote did not participate.

Member James Barrett was absent from the meeting. He told The Herald-Sun last year that he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. He also said earlier this month that he will not run for reelection to the board because he is running for state school superintendent in 2020.

Board member Pat Heinrich was silent during the discussion, even after other members said they would like to hear from him. Approached by a reporter after Thursday’s meeting, Heinrich said he would make a statement at a future board meeting.

The board voted 4-3 in September to make Glenwood a dual-language Mandarin magnet school. For years, Glenwood has had a Mandarin program with students selected by lottery, with a traditional track also at the school for students in the Glenwood zone.

The smallest elementary school in the district, Glenwood has long faced overcrowding, and converting the school to a magnet was seen as a solution to that, as well as a way to get more students in dual-language classes at upper levels.

After the vote, parents of traditional-track students accused Heinrich and Barrett of conflict of interest. Heinrich has a daughter in the Mandarin program. The parents made a public records request for emails and texts from board members to parents of children in the Mandarin program.

Before the discussion on transparency and board policies Thursday, Glenwood parent Ron DiFelice handed board members an analysis of the emails and texts that he said showed Heinrich and Barrett had violated seven board policies. They included conducting affairs of the board in an open and public manner, complying with all applicable laws governing open meetings and public records and respecting the confidentiality of information that is privileged under applicable law and refraining from using the board member’s position for personal partisan gain.

Last year, while she was chairwoman, board member Rani Dasi said the board would revisit the September vote to make Glenwood a magnet school. Board member Margaret Samuels has since replaced Dasi as chairwoman. Samuels said Thursday that Dasi requested the discussion on transparency and board policies.

Possible contradiction

Dasi said she was “stunned” to learn that board members were strategizing with one side of the issue, and that according to board policy, members should have revealed those contacts. “As a result of what we learned on these topics,” Dasi said, “I do not feel safe sharing information with some board members. … If the board believes this behavior is OK, we should tell the public so they will know what to expect.”

Later, Dasi expressed how the crisis has disrupted board operations: “I don’t know how to operate with this board anymore, in terms of how we communicate toward each other about meetings we have with one group or the other.” Dasi said she didn’t feel new policies were necessary because policies already in place didn’t stop the crisis from happening.

Samuels said there could be a contradiction between the policy that says board members should inform the chairwoman of requests to meet informally with groups and the policy that says in matters of the education of their own children, board members act as parents rather than board members.

Board member Joal Broun seemed to refer to Heinrich’s silence during the discussion, when she said, “So at the end of the day, if there’s not going to be anything, and nobody’s going to say what the expectation is, we can conclude this conversation right now because the absence of what people say is also telling.”

Glenwood parent Tim Shearer said the discussion “was really unsatisfying” and said that favoring any particular group was unethical.

The board’s attorney has cleared Heinrich and Barrett from any conflict of interest, and in an interview last year, Frayda S. Bluestein, a professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, agreed, saying a conflict of interest usually involves a monetary gain. She did say, however, that board members might have broken their own policies in the matter.

The board is scheduled to participate in a webinar on ethics for local school boards in March.

Matt Goad: MattGoad@gmail.com
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