SRCA board operates with reduced membership
Over the last eight months, three board members have either resigned or been removed from the Shining Rock Classical Academy Board of Directors, two of whom had issues with school leadership. During that time, no replacement board members have been added.
The board of directors acts as the school’s governing body and is legally responsible for the academic, financial and operational quality of the school. The National Charter School Resource Center says that “given the centrality of autonomy to charter schools, the board is integral to the proper oversight of schools.”
North Carolina had 210 charter schools at the start of the 2022-23 school year, serving over 130,000 students. Charter schools are public schools operated by non-profit boards. The schools have open enrollment and no tuition is charged to attend. Tax dollars are the primary funding source for charter schools.
Shining Rock Classical Academy was founded in 2015. Classes first met in the Wilson Center at the Lake Junaluska Assembly before moving to a modular campus on Dellwood Road on property leased from the assembly. In August 2021, the school began classes in its new, permanent building on Russ Avenue. This campus now sees almost 600 K-10 students, while the old modular campus is home to the preschool Shining Rock Junior Academy.
With the school still paying off debt from its first phase of construction and plans for more construction in the near future, this board of limited members has been making key decisions for the school’s future.
According to its own bylaws, the Shining Rock Classical Academy Board of Directors is set up to operate with a minimum of seven members and a maximum of 13.
Until this year, the board had been operating with seven members. Michelle Haynes was removed from the board of directors in January following a personal leave of absence that the board had approved four months prior. Once the agreed-upon date of return passed and she did not return, the board decided to end her membership.
While the board never voted on her removal, the minutes of the January meeting state “the board secretary position has been vacated and we are in need of a new secretary.”
Haynes did not contest the removal.
Minutes for the January meeting show the board discussed the need for finding a new member.
“Need to recruit someone who is experienced in fundraising, has a passion for organizing events as well as being able to connect with individuals and companies in the community. We need to get the information about joining the board on the website,” the January SRCA board minutes read.
The board continued operating one member down until it voted to remove yet another individual, Rebecca Fitzgibbon, in May. Fitzgibbon did contest her removal.
“I will continue to serve the Shining Rock community in whatever capacity I am able,” Fitzgibbon told The Smoky Mountain News. “I love serving my community. I would really like to see our school carry out its mission and vision. Our family joined SRCA because we heard that the school community was open minded and welcoming. We felt that welcoming initially. We were also drawn to Shining Rock because of the promise of experiential education and the explanation that students are brought outside more often than at other schools.”
Fitzgibbon joined the SRCA board during the 2020 fall semester. She is the mother of two children that attend the school.
During the 2021-22 school year, an incident occurred that resulted in Fitzgibbon and her husband lodging a grievance with the school. Due to the unresolved nature of the grievance, the family is not willing to share details.
“There’s currently an unresolved grievance,” said Greg Elder, Fitzgibbon’s husband. “The lack of a clear process for resolving our grievance and the mismanagement of the already unclear process left us feeling unresolved. In my opinion, this, combined with the directive to board members to always support the head of school, illustrates the inherent inability to resolve such a conflict if the board’s first purpose is to support the head of school and the grievance involves the head of school.”
Protocol at SRCA calls for grievances to be addressed to the head of school. However, Fitzgibbon’s grievance concerned the head of school and after speaking with him, the couple did not feel that the issue could be resolved through this course. Following the next steps in grievance policy, they took their complaints to the chair of the school board, Melanie Norman, and filed the grievance officially.
Board members Frank Lay and Natalie Malis were appointed to hear Fitzgibbon’s complaint. However, after a meeting with only Lay, the Fitzgibbons still did not feel that their grievance was being handled properly.
As a parent, Fitzgibbon was angered that her grievance was not being addressed in a satisfactory manner. As a board member, she became frustrated that the process for lodging a grievance wasn’t functioning efficiently, and that more work was not being done in the governance committee to resolve the inefficiencies.
Ultimately, Fitzgibbon decided to formally drop her grievance in order to address the school’s grievance and discipline policies as a member of the SRCA board.
“I wanted to work for the betterment of our whole school community,” said Fitzgibbon. “I saw that this issue went way beyond my own. I decided to formally drop my grievance after being told that we would be able to work more efficiently as board members if I wasn’t in the middle of a formal grievance process. I decided to do so with the hope of making important improvements for our school on the board level.”
After formally dropping her grievance, she began working with the board to develop policies and procedures that would enable it to function in a consistent manner when addressing any future grievances as well as discipline and reporting of bullying and harassment.
“I believe the board decided to remove me because I had a conflict with the head of school, and because I was diligently working for board and head of school accountability,” said Fitzgibbon. “By this point, I had become aware of the fact that many others had experienced similar issue to what my family had faced, and I believed that those issues needed to be addressed at board level.”
According to Norman, it is rare for the board to seek removal of a member and only done to ensure the board can continue to effectively serve as the governing body for the school. Norman said “unresolved issues” with Fitzgibbon prompted the board to seek her removal.
“The responsibility of the chairperson is to keep the board functioning efficiently,” said Norman. “When it becomes apparent that a board member cannot uphold the responsibilities of the role, the chairperson is required to take action on behalf of the board, the school and the community.”
At the start of the regular May 25 meeting, Norman added an item to the agenda to consider the removal of a director from the board. Board members Fitzgibbon and Lori Castner voted against the amendment to the agenda, while Norman, Lay, Malis and Kelley Lewis voted in favor.
When the agenda item came up later in the meeting, board member Frank Lay made a motion to go into closed session pursuant to General Statute 143-318.11(a)(6).
“I invoke the need for a closed session out of the nature that generally we don’t do closed sessions for board membership, but employees may come up,” he said.
This section of General Statutes also states, “a public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting.”
In the meeting, Fitzgibbon stated that she did not need a closed session and that she did not need to bring up other employees.
“I want to hear if you guys have reasons for removing me from the board,” Fitzgibbon said.
Castner and Fitzgibbon both voted against going into closed session, but with four votes in favor, the motion passed.
“Going into closed session to remove a board member was a clear violation of G.S. 143-318.11(a)(6),” says Beth Soja, an attorney who is an open meetings expert for the North Carolina Press Association. “Even if the board needed to discuss the head of school’s ‘qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment,’ and frankly it does not sound like that was the case, that piece could have been done in a separate closed session; the discussion regarding the board member definitely should have been in open session.”
Following the closed session, the board voted on the motion to remove Fitzgibbon. Norman, Lay, Malis and Lewis voted in favor of removal; Castner abstained from the vote.
In comments after the vote, Lay made it clear that Fitzgibbon had been removed from the board due to issues concerning the head of school. He also divulged private information about one of Fitzgibbon’s children before he was cut off by fellow board members who were concerned that he was sharing too much information in an open meeting.
“[When you and I sat down and first talked] it was an absolutely open desire to get as much detail from you as we could through this. In the end I think there have been too many things that have occurred to make it a continuing focus, just because for me when you work with a person as a head of school, in our role as a body politic to work with that head of school, sure we all want to improve and get better but if we can’t…” Lay said before he was cut off.
“It has been my experience that charter school boards often struggle with Open Meetings Law compliance for a variety of reasons,” said Soja.
Shining Rock’s attorney does not regularly attend the school board meetings. Having the board attorney present during meetings is common among most public school boards.
Other board members thanked Fitzgibbon for her service.
“I would just like to say that for the time that I have served on committee with Rebecca, she’s been valuable,” said Malis. “She loves this school, she cares deeply about our community and it’s been a wonderful resource in facilities. For the purposes of how we need to move forward, that’s why I voted the way that I did.”
“I would second that. I love your passion, you know that, but you’re never going to feel like it is resolved in the way you want, and we won’t be able to move forward with you having those feelings,” said Lewis. “At the moment, it’s not working. We don’t want you to go anywhere, we need your voice.”
“Let us learn some things from this,” said Castner. “Let us learn how important communication is, because I personally feel that that is at the center of all the frustration that she’s had. We need to learn something from this, every one of us.”
The last member to leave the board, Lori Castner, submitted a letter of resignation from the SRCA Board of Directors July 1. She still serves on the Shining Rock Junior Academy board.
“Over the time I have served on the SRCA Board of Directors, it has become clear to me that my involvement with the Board is not a healthy fit with my values regarding education and leadership,” Castner stated in her letter of resignation from the board. “Shining Rock could be a gift to education in Western North Carolina. I continue to wish for the success of SRCA.”
During a governance committee meeting Aug. 19, board members Norman and Malis discussed tactics for recruiting new members.
“The Board is actively recruiting new members and will onboard them as quickly as is prudently possible,” Norman told The Smoky Mountain News. “We aim to ensure that SRCA meets and exceeds the number of members outlined in Article 4.2. After that, the board plans to onboard a minimum of one board member each year.”
The protocol for adding new members to the SRCA board involves putting them on a committee for a certain amount of time before bringing their application before the board for a vote. This allows the applicant time to learn about the workings of the board and become involved prior to officially joining the board. Once the prospective member has served on a committee for some months, the board reviews the application during a public meeting and takes a vote on whether to admit the applicant to the board.
However, due to the current shortage of members, Norman and Malis discussed tactics that would allow the board to fill vacant seats more quickly. The board is considering reaching out to previous members to ask them to fill vacant seats on the board until prospective members have had the chance to spend time as part of a committee.
“Historically, growing board membership has been challenging given the time commitment required of board members,” said Norman. “With three applicants at present, SRCA has found the board member search process to be much faster, which we attribute to the school's success, popularity, growth and the trust that our Head of School, Josh Morgan, has built within the community.”
According to Norman, the board has three prospective members “in the works.” A special governance committee meeting to interview these potential board candidates was held Tuesday, Aug. 23, at 6:30 p.m., and one will be held Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 7:15 p.m.
“The Board is seeking new members to return to at least seven board members,” Norman told The Smoky Mountain News. “Per our bylaws, the Board requires a quorum to hold a meeting, and a majority vote is required to approve decisions. All SRCA's board decisions have been approved by a majority of the Board.”
For the time being, plans for phase two construction of the school are on pause. As the school was going to market for the bond, interest rates spiked several time and prices for materials were higher than anticipated. To ensure the school remains financially sound, the board decided to wait on further construction.
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This rag won't be satisfied until this school is closed. It obviously has an agenda.
How can anyone, in good conscience, serve on this board if there is a requirement to always support the head of school???