North Carolina partisan politics can often be a subtle game of chess, or it can deteriorate into a brutal back-porch game of checkers. The partisan gamesmanship which has been going on around the W-S/Forsyth County School Board for the last 3 years continues unabated into the process to select a replacement for Board Chair Donny Lambeth as he moves on to the General Assembly. The importance of the appointment to fill the vacancy may have increased since the School Board is responsible for the selection of the new Superintendent of Schools, an action scheduled for completion by April 30, 2013. The Board will have two un-elected members making that decision, due to vacancies created since the 2010 election. This is a School Board that has received a “D” from the conservative John Locke Foundation. Exactly how Lambeth’s successor will be named will come down to how legal counsel for the County interprets the Statutes that apply to the sitting School Board’s authority on such matters.
North Carolina’s governmental structure is organized in such a way that the State Legislature has institutional control over County-level governmental entities. The authority of the State is held by the Legislature, which creates Counties and provides statutory guidelines, and in some cases specific laws, as to the authority and structure of the governance of those Counties and entities within them. The Legislature can take back or modify any authority previously granted to the Counties or local governments. If the state law reserves the right of a local governmental entity to make their own policies, they may do so, but if not, the entity must abide by the General Statutes set forth by the Legislature.
In March of 1961, the Legislature exercised these rights and a law was passed that merged the City of Winston-Salem School System and Forsyth County School System into one – the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School System. This STATUTE mandated partisan elections to the School Board and stipulated that the replacement of members vacating their position early be undertaken by the County Commission. There were no provisions for replacement of members who were not affiliated with a party. This law remained unchanged with the exception of the 1989 Davis Act which removed term limits from members serving on the School Board. This change allowed for members such as sitting member Jane Goins to serve 27 years, and has resulted in a Board-wide tenure averaging 14 years instead of the previous law’s provision of an 8 year limit.
Fast forward almost 50 years to 2009. Democratic State Representatives Earline Parmon and Larry Womble successfully introduced a bill to require the WSFC School System’s Board be elected on a non-partisan basis. THIS LAW, made effective June 9, 2009, moved the System to be in line with the general State Statute requiring School Boards to be elected non-partisan. It established term lengths to be staggered according to the number of votes received, with those receiving the most votes getting 4 year terms and those who won with lower numbers getting 2 year terms. The first non-partisan election was set to be in 2010.
Earline Parmon, who is now Senator-elect for District 32, said that she and Womble brought the Board back in line with State processes. “We thought taking partisanship out of education was important,” Parmon said.
In the general election held in November of 2010, the entirety of the 9 member School Board was re-elected, this time without a partisan designation. The non-partisan election did nothing to change the makeup of the Board, but it did determine by which statutes the new Board had to operate. Having been elected in a non-partisan fashion meant that the members were to serve as representatives of their views and those of their constituents, not of a political party. The new statute only altered the fact that election to the Board would occur in a non-partisan fashion, a move that overrode all provisions in the 1961 law related specifically to partisan-elected Board members.
This effectively changed Forsyth County to line up with the majority of the State, which follows the General Statutes regarding School Boards. The first time this minor change came to have an impact was with the April 2011 resignation of long time Board member Geneva Brown, a registered Democrat.
Just months into her new term, Brown’s health reached a point where she was unable to continue in her role on the Board. She resigned on April 19, 2011 and her resignation was announced on the School System’s WEBSITE on April 20. The Board met on April 26th and voted on the method they would follow to appoint her replacement. Chairman Donny Lambeth cited (see below) State STATUTE 115C-37 as providing the process that the Board had to utilize, and the Board voted 7-1 to adopt the specifics of the process, with Elisabeth Motsinger voting against. (note- the minutes of the meeting say vote was unanimous while the website listed the vote as 7-1. Motsinger personally claims she voted against.)
The process itself was announced on the School website on April 27th. The appointment process followed a rapid timetable that allowed for a short 5½ day application period ending at noon on May 2nd, a phone conference between Board members to narrow the applicants to 3 candidates on the evening of May 2nd, a full Board interview of those candidates the on evening of May 3rd, and a vote the same night to appoint John Davenport, a registered Republican. Davenport was sworn in at the Board meeting on May 10th and canceled his contracts to provide transportation design services at the new Zone 1 School effective the same meeting.
In the Spring of that same year, Republican State Representatives Dale Folwell, William McGee, and Larry Brown introduced a bill that would move School Board elections back to partisan. The bill was passed into law, and became effective July 1, 2011. The LAW extended every School Board member’s term to a full 4 years, and scheduled partisan elections for the entirety of the Board to be held at the general election in 2014. All members elected at that time and forward will serve 4 year terms on the Board.
Outgoing Representative Dale Folwell told CCD “The 2009 Legislation was rammed down the throats of the people of Forsyth County. We just put it back the way it was [in 1961].”
(CCD will be presenting more on the factors affecting the 2009 and 2011 Legislation in a feature next week.)
Then comes 2012. In February of 2012, School Board Chairman Donny Lambeth, a registered Republican, filed to run to represent District 75 in the General Assembly. At noon on February 29, 2012, when the filing deadline passed, no one else had filed to run for that seat, and Mr. Lambeth effectively knew that he would be the next Representative for District 75. At the November 6th general election, he was confirmed as the Representative-elect. No preparations or announcements were made regarding Mr. Lambeth’s seat after the Feb. filing deadline nor after election day.
When two weeks later the November 20th regular meeting of the School Board came around and Mr. Lambeth had yet to resign, nor had the System declared the process they would undertake to appoint his successor, Carissa Joines, a mother with 5 children in the WSFCS who had closely followed the appointment process of 2011, brought her concerns to the Board. After presenting a brief time-line of the previous appointment push-through, Joines requested that the Board make public the process they would use to replace Lambeth, giving the long-time knowledge they possessed as to the timetable for Mr. Lambeth’s inevitable resignation as a source of frustration for those waiting for the process to be initiated. Mr. Lambeth, after wandering inattentively behind the Board for much of Joines’ comments, sat down and addressed her concerns. When Joines stated that the Statute regulating the process for the appointment of a successor had not changed, Lambeth and School System Counsel Allison Tomberlin quickly interrupted with claims that the Statute had indeed changed.
Joines questioned that assertion and asked for evidence of the change, requesting that the information related to the process that would be undertaken, with their legal basis, be placed on the System’s website. She was assured by Lambeth and Tomberlin that would be done with haste. As of this time, nothing to that effect has been done.
When Joines said that she had not found any evidence of a change that would have influence on the process, Lambeth said “It was (sic) very different than what we went through before,” referring to the appointment of Davenport.
“Officers of the Republican party will choose my successor,” Mr. Lambeth emphatically said. He continued “We’re just following the law.”
Joines repeated her request that the law be made clear to the public, and after another assurance that it would be, the conversation ended.
Tomberlin and Charles McCurry, Counsels to the School Board, approached Joines and offered to clear the issue and send her a statutory history which would include their basis for the new process.
Then next day, McCurry emailed the history to Joines. Contrary to Lambeth’s assertion that the Republican party would choose his replacement, he stated that the System would be following the 1961 statute that required the County Commission appoint members to fill vacancies. McCurry asserted that because there was a specific statute for Forsyth County, the General Statute did not apply. When Joines questioned the application of that 1961 statute in this case, citing the fact that it addressed procedures for a Board elected on a partisan basis, and the current Board was elected non-partisan, presenting as evidence the statutory history submitted by McCurry and the April meeting minutes where Lambeth gave the General Statute as the law the Board had to follow in 2011, McCurry did not reply.
A number of attorneys and legislators have been presented with the Statutory history and meeting minutes of the Board’s previous actions. The consensus has been that because the Board was elected in a non-partisan manner, they must continue to abide by those statutes applying to non-partisan elected Boards, of which Forsyth County has no special provision to allow them to operate outside of the General Statute. In North Carolina, State Law trumps any policy or procedural guideline established by any County entity, unless the State has specifically granted the authority to the entity to establish those guides. Therefore, the appointment process for Mr. Lambeth’s successor will have to follow the General Statutes’ stipulations, as were followed in the 2011 procedure, which require the School Board itself must choose replacements for vacancies. The School Board can choose to take recommendations from any group they desire, and can decide to set any timetable or application process they desire, but the Board itself must vote on the decision to fill a vacancy.
However, not everyone agrees on who is responsible for filling the vacancy. The School System has determined that in spite of Lambeth’s assertion that the Republican Party would choose his successor, the responsible party is actually the County Commission, citing the 1961 statute as the prevailing law regarding this issue. The County staff does not necessarily agree. County Manager Dudley Watts and County Attorney Gordon Watkins III reviewed the issue and although they first stated that their opinion was that the 1961 Statute did not apply in this instance because the Board was elected as non-partisan, they later determined that the issue was so complicated that it warranted additional opinion from the UNC School of Government.
The Republican Party of Forsyth County has scheduled a meeting of their executive committee to select an individual to present to the County Commissioners for appointment to fill the School Board vacancy. Several sources, both Democrat and Republican, have suggested that the front-runner to be selected by the Republican Party will be long-time School Board member Jane Goins’ daughter, Lori Goins Clark. Clark ran unsuccessfully in 2010 for the one of the at-large seats which were won by Lambeth, Jeannie Metcalf and Elisabeth Motsinger.
One Republican source stated that “Everyone knows Donny Lambeth is a Republican,” which is true. It is also true that everyone clearly understood that Geneva Brown was a Democrat when she was replaced with a Republican in 2011.
The final result is unlikely to be different whether the Republican-majority School Board or Republican-majority County Commission chooses the appointee for Lambeth’s vacated seat – a Republican will be chosen to fill the vacancy just as occurred in 2011. What is at stake is how transparent the process will be, and whether the vacancy will be filled by direct appointment or by some application and interview process. Regardless of the process, the timetable to fill the vacancy is continuing to get shorter, and with the loss of time comes a loss of transparency.
Editor’s note: Carissa joines is a regular contributor and editor for CCD.