Public records show that the board regularly discussed school district business by text message after four new members were sworn in
BY MIKE FUHRMAN
The Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education has repeatedly violated North Carolina’s open meetings law during the past five months.
I-SS Board members have conducted secret meetings via text message on at least 32 different dates since mid-December, according to documents obtained by Iredell Free News.
In response to a public records request, district officials provided Iredell Free News with a 123-page document that includes hundreds of text messages between board members and the superintendent.
During those meetings, the board members discussed the Iredell County Board of Commissioners’ political posturing over funding for the new high school; their views of pro-charter school legislation sponsored by N.C. Rep. Jeff McNeely; the need to protect students from views and memorabilia supporting the LGBTQ community; whether district schools should compete in sports against charter schools; how to deal with discipline issues at Statesville High School; and more.
The full range of topics is unknown because school board attorney Dean Shatley redacted several sections of the document, explaining that those portions were exempt from the records request because the material was “confidential” or “not related to the school system’s business, and therefore not subject to the public records law.”
N.C. law requires meetings to be held in public
North Carolina law prohibits a quorum of board members from meeting and discussing official business unless the board has provided notice of the meeting and then meets publicly in open session. State law makes no distinction between in-person meetings and meetings held electronically, according to an analysis by the UNC School of Government.
Brooks Fuller, who has served as the executive director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University since 2019, said the I-SS Board’s actions appear to be contrary to state law.
“North Carolina law requires public bodies to conduct the public’s business in public. When a majority of a public body meets simultaneously, even electronically, they have to give notice to the public and produce minutes,” Fuller explained. “Legal experts across the state agree that this applies to group emails and text messages among the majority of a public body.
“These text messages show that the members of the Iredell County school board were engaged in a group discussion of the public’s business completely in the dark. They are actively deliberating raising tax revenue and spending public money on schools. These are policy decisions that deeply affect the lives of folks in Iredell and ought to be made publicly. This seems like a clear violation of the open meetings law,” he added.
The secret meetings began in December — exactly two weeks after new board members Mike Kubiniec, Anita Kurn, Brian Sloan and Abby Trent were sworn in. The four new board members were the most frequent participants in the illegal meetings, along with Doug Knight, who was elected in 2020. Chairman Bill Howell, who was elected in 2016, participated less frequently than those five members. Charles Kelly, who was elected in 2004, did not actively participate in the illegal meetings.
The new board members attended N.C. School Board Association training in Raleigh on December 8-9 that included an overview of the state’s open meetings laws. District officials have also provided the board with additional training on the proper way to conduct school board business.
There is also evidence in the string of text messages that the board members had at least some understanding of the state’s open meetings law — even as they violated it.
At one point, Sloan advised the other board members that he was headed to Waffle House before an upcoming meeting and invited “less than three” of his fellow board members to join him. (Any gathering of four board members would constitute a quorum of the I-SS Board, and therefore would require public notice of a meeting.)
Even after Iredell Free News requested the text messages documenting the board’s illegal meetings, school board members continued to meet secretly by text message.
On April 20, more than a month after the news organization made its public records request for copies of the texts, Howell sent a message to the rest of the board advising the other members that their conversations were a matter of public record. He did not admonish them for conducting a secret meeting.
“Ladies and gentlemen be very careful what you say,” Howell wrote. “The school system has been asked to provide text and email when we are talking.”
The chairman’s warning came in the midst of a string of texts about Sloan’s work as a poultry farmer.
Kubiniec, the vice chair, scoffed at Howell’s warning with a two-word response: “Very scandalous.”
Board members began illegal meetings on December 19
After prevailing in the 2022 elections, Kubiniec, Kurn, Sloan and Trent were sworn in on December 5, 2022.
Two weeks later, on December 19, Superintendent Jeff James established a group text for the purpose of sharing information with the new board. However, board members immediately began using the forum to discuss school district policies, matters on upcoming meeting agendas, and the performance of at least one principal.
On more than one occasion, board members “voted” for proposals advanced by their peers via text message. During the board’s regular meeting on March 13 in Troutman, Sloan texted that he was ready to go home. “Past my bedtime,” he wrote. “Let’s adjourn.” The next day Sloan followed up with another text. “I make a motion we try end all meetings by at least 9 pm”
Text messages target LGBTQ advocacy, ‘woke agendas’
In February, in a series of text messages, board members railed against plans for an LGBTQ advocate and former district employee to speak to students at Oakwood Middle School, An IB World School during an after-school club meeting:
Trent: “I am going to be honest, I am not comfortable with this. This has nothing to do with school.”
Kubiniec: “Why do we allow the IB schools to push this type of stuff – optional or not? … He is a self-proclaimed activist.”
Sloan: “I vote No.”
Kubiniec: “Middle school? Really?”
Knight: “This man should not be in our schools pushing his agenda. … A walking talking version of books that should not be here.”
Howell: “I agree.”
Kubiniec: “I would also like to know what are all the other IB schools pushing too? How do we find out about them? Is this hidden from plain sight? Where are the checks and balances?”
The day after that discussion the superintendent notified the board that the event at Oakwood IB Middle had been canceled – even after he had advised the board that the gathering was likely protected by the First Amendment and the school board could open itself to being sued for discrimination if the event was canceled.
After a second incident at Oakwood IB, Trent texted the board that a participant in a Comic Con event was handing out Gay Pride flags. The chairman participated in a board discussion about the event.
“I understand enrichment and it is important but this goes way beyond that,” Howell wrote. “I am so glad I was not there. I might have lost my temper.”
Kubiniec pushed the superintendent for recommendations to ensure students would not be exposed to those types of views in the future.
“What is the best way to drive home to the IB schools (and to all schools) that the gay, transgender, and woke agendas being driven by these people is not acceptable?” he wrote.
The vice chair’s views on this community also spilled over into a discussion about whether the district should accept a $17 million mental health grant. Kubiniec expressed his concern that the grant could require the district to provide “gender identity/affirming ‘care’, LGBTQ+123ABC ‘care’, and other such things.”
“Before we approve,” the vice chair texted, “the details must be communicated.”
Board members take aim at elected officials, Iredell Free News
Board members regularly used the secret meetings to voice their opinions on a variety of matters, including the work of elected officials and local media.
Rep. Jeff McNeely incurred the wrath of several board members for co-sponsoring legislation that would require traditional public schools to share certain revenues with charter schools.
After the superintendent advised the board that the bill McNeely supported would cause I-SS to lose $12 million in funding annually, Kubiniec suggested that Superintendent James submit an op-ed to the local newspaper and Iredell Free News explaining that the lawmaker was not working in the best interest of the school district.
“Let me know if you need proofing or any salty language added!” Kubiniec wrote.
“I always wanted to be a leg breaker,” Sloan added.
Howell complained that Rep. McNeely had placed politics above what was best for Iredell-Statesville Schools. “He is all for the bill and does not really care about us,” the chairman wrote, citing an email from the lawmaker.
Another frequent topic in the long string of text messages was the ongoing and often contentious discussions with the Iredell County Board of Commissioners about funding for the new Weathers Creek High School.
At one point, Trent blamed current and previous county commissioners for not planning adequately for the project. “This is why we need people who are conservative running the county so we are able to put money back for things such as this,” she wrote. “Thus far we have had folks who overspent & did not plan ahead for growth.”
Later, when Kubiniec shared that he was tired of the school board and county commissioners “launching arrows and attacking one another,” Kurn responded by blaming Commissioner Bert Connolly for the friction between the two boards.
“It is only one launching arrows and that is Connolly,” Kurn wrote.
Sloan, however, pushed back.
“Why do you say only one launching arrows. We poke the dog every chance we get,” he wrote.
“He is the only one that goes on offense,” Kurn replied.
“We go out of our way to say something at every opportunity,” Sloan said.
Howell, during another exchange on this topic, warned other board members that he might need someone to restrain him when they meet with county commissioners to discuss county funding.
“I might need some help when we meet with the CC the next week, being professional and holding back my temper,” the chairman wrote.
After Iredell Free News published a column criticizing board members Kubiniec (for his rejection of data linking poverty and poor test scores, among other things) and Sloan (for suggesting he was qualified to serve as principal of Statesville High), Kubiniec proposed that the board prohibit district administrators from purchasing advertising from Iredell Free News.
When Knight responded by saying the optics of publicly voting to cut advertising “would be very bad PR in my opinion,” Kubiniec ended the conversation by saying: “Maybe we don’t have to do it publicly.”
Board members joke about having Statesville High students fight in ‘Thunderdome’
The board members also expressed their frustration over the violence in the Statesville community and the discipline problems at Statesville High School.
In response to a news article about school violence and legislation that allows school staff in another state to carry guns that was posted in the group text, Kubiniec proposed that school board members be allowed to carry guns. Knight expressed his opposition to that idea.
Meanwhile, Kurn and Sloan held a playful discussion about sanctioning student fighting at Statesville High:
Sloan: “Another idea, we could have a sign up sheet for fighting. Put them through some kick box training and have a officiated match”
Kurn: “Why not just have Thunderdome in the middle of the football field. We can charge admission.”
The term “Thunderdome” commonly refers to steel-cage fights to the death in the film “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”
Chairman disagrees with view that group texts are meetings
In an interview, I-SS Board Chairman Bill Howell, who said he was not speaking on behalf of the entire board, disagreed with the view that a string of text messages among a quorum of board members constituted a “meeting.”
“If we are all in a room having a meeting, that’s a meeting,” Howell said. The group text “is a way to keep in contact with board members so they don’t get their information from the news media and they get the truth,” he added.
He argued that the board made no decisions during the text exchanges and said there were “no discussions about particular issues other than a concern for students.”
When presented with the content of some of the board’s text messages, however, Howell conceded that some of the conversations could be classified as “school business.”
“I’m sorry if I broke a law, if I broke a state statute,” he added. “If I did, I will not do it again.”
According to the UNC School of Government, N.C. law provides limited remedies for correcting violations of the state’s open meetings law:
♦ Any person may seek a court injunction to prevent a recurrence of past violations of the law, the continuation of ongoing violations, or future violations; and
♦ A judge may invalidate any action taken or considered in violation of the law;
In addition, a judge may award attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party in a lawsuit alleging a violation of the open meetings law. The judge may order that the attorneys’ fees be paid personally by individual members of the public board if they are found to have knowingly or intentionally violated the law.
Read all of the I-SS Board Text Messages.