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Plaintiff suffers setback in school board lawsuit

fr schoolsuitArguments were heard in Haywood County Superior Court July 19 in the matter of Melrose v. The Haywood County Board of Education, at the center of which is the closing of Central Elementary School.

“These school issues are emotional,” Iredell County Senior Resident Judge Joe Crosswhite said from the bench. “One thing we try not to do is put emotion in this — we try on fact.”

Unfortunately for attorney Mark Melrose, the plaintiff who brought the suit both individually and as Guardian ad Litem for his daughter, Crosswhite then allowed School Board Attorney Pat Smathers’ motion to dismiss Melrose’s request for a preliminary injunction to halt the closure of the school. 

“The judge made the ruling he felt was correct based on the law,” Melrose said. “He’s denied our ability to bring for a hearing the matter of trying to obtain an order to keep the school open. My understanding is that he based that in large or entirely on the fact that the school has been closed.”

Indeed, the crux of Smathers’ argument to the judge centered on cases that involved the “mootness doctrine,” which in essence means that a party cannot be enjoined or prohibited from taking an action that has already been taken. 

In this instance, that action is the closure of Central, which closed on June 14. 

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Melrose countered by citing an exception to the doctrine, stating that if an action — like closing a school — was repeatable and evasive of judicial oversight, that action could indeed be enjoined. 

An Army Colonel and Bronze Star recipient who helped establish the postwar Afghani judicial system, Crosswhite didn’t elaborate on his decision, but he clearly didn’t agree with Melrose’s reasoning. 

“It was the appropriate ruling,” Smathers said. “As the judge said, these are emotional issues, but you have to follow the law. The school board is given the obligation and responsibility to make wise decisions based on resources, and to allocate where schools are, and which students go to specific schools, and that changes with time. The school is closed, both physically and legally, and the judge’s ruling says the same thing. It’s a moot question. The school board followed the law. As resources and funds demographics change, the school system has to change with it. I’ve said before, none of the current school board members wants to close a school, but there are times, and for the reasons it was done in this case, you just have to do that. Your hand is really tied.”

Central was closed this June as a cost-saving measure because of a projected $2.4 million budget shortfall that wasn’t known until the state budget passed in October 2015. 

Melrose’s lawsuit alleges that open meeting laws and school board policy were violated, and that the mandated study of the effects of the closure may not have been thorough enough. 

Despite the adverse ruling, this isn’t the end of the case, said Melrose. 

“The rest of the lawsuit is continuing, and we’ll be able to engage in discovery to find out other details in the case, and eventually we’ll be able to present to the court the issues concerning the open meeting law, the violation of board policy, and whether they did the study correctly or not,” he said. 

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