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Shining Rock holds illegal meeting to dismiss parent grievances

Shining Rock holds illegal meeting to dismiss parent grievances

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories on Haywood County’s public charter school, Shining Rock Classical Academy, which has been beset by a host of academic and organizational problems since opening in 2015.

The results of an investigation conducted by Shining Rock Classical Academy’s board-appointed attorney into grievances filed against Shining Rock Interim Head of School Joshua Morgan — dismissing all claims against him — were presented to and accepted by Shining Rock’s governance committee during an illegal meeting in which public notice laws were violated.

“I’m not surprised. It’s not the first time they’ve done it,” said Melissa Taylor, one of three women who filed grievances with the Shining Rock board May 8 alleging improper disciplinary procedures by Morgan. “I would think they would be happy to let everybody know that their lawyer decided that nothing was done wrong, but at the same time, I think they didn’t want any of it to come to light in the first place.”

In North Carolina, all public bodies are subject to a suite of transparency laws that govern everything from public records to open meetings. 

“Charter schools are subject to the open meetings law. The law applies to all public bodies, and it lists examples, which include committees,” said Frayda Bluestein, the David M. Lawrence Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government at the UNC’s School of Government. “So, a committee of a public body is itself a separate public body and all of the requirements apply.” 

Taylor, along with Kelley Messer and Laura Arrington, received emails from Shining Rock Board Chair Michelle Haynes on June 7 that read, “... Shining Rock Classical Academy Governance Committee, in a special meeting held on June 6, 2019 at 3:00 p.m., unanimously approved the general findings, conclusions, and recommendations presented by the Grievance Facilitator to the Committee in closed session of that meeting.”

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Notice requirements are different for different types of meetings — regular, special and emergency. In this case, the required notice for the special June 6 meeting should have been emailed to what’s called a “sunshine list” at least 48 hours prior. 

Anyone can ask any public body to be included on the sunshine list, but usually the lists consist mostly of media outlets. Two separate Smoky Mountain News email accounts should have received the required notice of the meeting, but neither did. 

The Smoky Mountain News reached out to other media outlets on the list, several of which confirmed that they hadn’t received the required email notification of the meeting, either. 

Since its inception in 2015, Shining Rock has run afoul of open meetings laws a number of times — after a closed session dealing with property acquisition in July, 2015, prior to the resignation of founding School Director Ben Butler in October, 2017, and then again because of inclement weather in January 2018. 

During that same time period, Haywood County Schools failed to comply with open meeting laws once — around the same time, for the same reason and in the same fashion as Shining Rock did in 2018. 

At its next meeting, the HCS board acknowledged that it “may have” inadvertently violated state law, and then voted to “redo” all actions taken at the previous meeting to ensure the decisions made at the illegal meeting couldn’t be challenged. 

Smoky Mountain News reached out to Haynes June 12 to ask about the June 6 governance committee meeting. When she responded June 17, she referred us to SRCA’s lawyer in Charlotte. 

The board’s attorney David R. Hostetler said the board did post notice of the meeting on the school’s website — under the regular school calendar tab — and claimed the board posted a physical paper notice at the school, but did fail to send an email notification out to the sunshine list.

“It doesn’t appear that any email notice was sent out,” he said in an email. “If it was required and we missed it, it was an unintended oversight and we will work to correct that for the future.”

Per G.S. 143-318.16, in North Carolina any citizen has standing to ask for relief in the courts over violations of open meeting laws, including but not limited to a judicial order to comply with meeting notice requirements in the future and the invalidation of any actions taken during such illegal meetings.

It’s also not unheard of for defendants to bear the cost of the plaintiff’s litigation in such suits, or for board members to be fined personally. A search of the county’s court database indicated that no such actions have ever been filed against Shining Rock. 

As upset as they are about the June 6 meeting they knew nothing about, Messer and Taylor are even more disturbed by the results of the investigation into their grievances against Morgan, which was conducted by Hostetler.

Hostetler, whose annual contract was recently renewed by the board, was appointed as a grievance facilitator by Shining Rock’s grievance committee to conduct the investigation into the grievances, including Messer’s allegation that Morgan had used “improper physical contact and force” when disciplining her child. 

His summary was that “the evidence fails to show that Mr. Morgan violated any policy or law, or otherwise acted improperly or unreasonably under the circumstances. Therefore, it is determined and recommended that no disciplinary action against Mr. Morgan is warranted.”

“I wasn’t surprised at what happened,” said Messer. “I didn’t expect the board to take any disciplinary action. I mean, everybody knows it happened, but his side of it is that he’s trying to say he was justified in doing it, so them not taking any disciplinary action is like saying it’s OK.”

Taylor thinks the investigation was biased and flawed from the start. 

“That was my main concern,” she said. “They pay [Hostetler’s] salary, so how impartial can you be?”

She added that although she was upset about Hostetler’s findings, she wasn’t surprised. 

“Going into it, especially with the members of the grievance committee who are also members of the school board — who we have publicly called out as corrupt — I really didn’t think anything was going to come of this investigation,” said Taylor. “I was hopeful. So I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed.”

Taylor had alleged multiple instances of Morgan allowing “his temper to control his actions,” resulting in her children and other students not feeling safe. 

Hostetler’s summary again recommended no disciplinary action, but did say that the board should remind Morgan “to ensure that his disciplinary practices are proportionate to the circumstances and consistent with school values and best practices. And as a reasonable precaution, his discipline of students should also be generally monitored, accordingly, subject to invited feedback from peer observers (e.g., fellow administrators), and that it be one focal part of his job performance evaluations.”

Arrington’s grievance was dismissed because she couldn’t corroborate improper statements allegedly made to her child by Morgan, who denied any such statements were made. Arrington said the board was “standing behind” Morgan.

A number of teachers and board members also stood behind the embattled Morgan, offering testimonials to his leadership and ability at a recent board meeting, on social media, and in the opinion section of The Smoky Mountain News. 

Others, including former co-workers from as far away as South Carolina, supported the claims made against Morgan in the grievances. 

Shortly before the grievances were filed, Morgan emerged as a leading candidate for the school director position recently vacated by Nathan Duncan, who was terminated by the board amidst allegations of sexual harassment that Hostetler found credible during his investigation. 

On May 7, the day before the grievances were filed, then-Chair Anna Eason said she’d hoped to make a decision on the school director position on May 23. Two weeks later, current Chair Michelle Haynes said the board would wait to fill the position until Hostetler’s findings were presented. 

The email sent to Arrington, Messer and Taylor along with Hostetler’s report said that the findings were “reviewed and accepted by [Governance Committee] members” and that “the conclusions contained therein represent a final decision in this matter.”

“It is what it is,” said Messer, who works for Buncombe County Child Protective Services and has also contacted the Waynesville Police Department about her allegations. “All I can do is wait for the investigation with the police department to finish up and see what happens there, and if not, then take other legal actions. It’s not right, and it won’t end. He’s had similar situations in other schools, so it’s not the first time and if something’s not done it’s not going to be the last.”

Shining Rock’s next regularly scheduled board meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 19, at the school, located at 1023 Dellwood Rd., Waynesville.

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