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Accusations cloud school board election

FRANK TAYLOR
Managing Editor

With the election just days away and many citizens already having sealed in their picks through absentee ballots and early voting, accusations of misconduct are raising controversy in two Lincoln County Board of Education races.

One board member seeking re-election faces a potential censure vote from the board on Nov. 14, after the election but before the new board is seated. At issue is his campaign’s use of confidential school employee records to send out letters, which also raises questions of possible criminal violations.

In a separate case, the board is due to review its policy on politicking at school events after another board member was accused by his opponent of improper activity.

In the case of the letters to school employees, board member Tommy Houser has said he did send out the letters. Houser initially told the Times-News that he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong and just wanted to let teachers know how much he appreciated their work.

But since the board threatened him with censure and news reports noted that his campaign may have broken the law, Houser has not responded to messages from the Times-News left at his home and workplace, inviting him to share his side with voters before the election.

Both of his opponents, Cathy Davis and Nolan Nance, talked with the Times-News about the situation on Thursday.

“I haven’t talked with any school employees who are happy about the letters,” Davis said. She also questioned how he could possibly believe that sending out the letters wasn’t a violation of school policy.

Nance had similar observations: “(Houser) has been on the school board for 12 years. He should have known that wasn’t legal.”

As previously reported, the University of North Carolina School of Government’s specialist on public employee law, Bob Joyce, has advised that inappropriate access to the records would constitute a misdemeanor under North Carolina law.

The law does allow board members to access the records, but not to provide that access to third parties. If Houser had assistance in using a computer to access, format and print the letters to employees’ home addresses, it could constitute a violation of that law.

The Board of Education has no power to enforce a criminal statute, but board members have said they believe Houser may have violated a board policy by using the private records in the way he did, creating a conflict of interest.

As a result, the board voted unanimously, in Houser’s absence at a recent special session, to threaten him with a censure. He will have the opportunity at the Nov. 14 hearing to explain his actions to the board, after which a censure vote may take place.

The censure is essentially a stern warning from his colleagues and would not affect Houser’s ability to serve another term if re-elected. The outcome of the censure vote also won’t directly affect whether anyone with his campaign faces criminal prosecution for the apparent breach of employee privacy.

“I don’t feel like the letter is playing that big of a role in the election,” Nance said. But he added that the threat of censure hanging over Houser had to be a “big negative.”

School events

Board chairman Ed Hatley freely admits that he has distributed campaign literature outside local high school football games.

His opponent, Anita McCall, says that’s a violation of school policy.

Hatley told the Times-News this week that he is careful to stay outside the gate at events, which is how he says the policy has consistently been interpreted.

But McCall notes that the plain wording of the school system’s policy on politicking by board members says they shouldn’t be handing out literature on school grounds at all, making no reference to whether they are in or outside the gate.

Asked about whether there was an official interpretation of the policy allowing Hatley to hand out campaign materials outside school events, Superintendent Sherry Hoyle said that she researched the issue and spoke with a former superintendent who recalled a former school attorney handing down that interpretation several years ago.

Even so, McCall said she believes the policy should be enforced as written and has no plans to hand out literature at events, since she believes it would be a violation.

She also noted that some people involved in political activity have been hassled and told to leave games.

Martin Oakes, a political activist from Denver, told the Times-News that he was forced to stop distributing literature in support of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr outside an East Lincoln football game in 2010. A sheriff’s deputy identifying himself as the school resources officer told him to leave, Oakes said.

Asked Thursday about that incident, Sheriff David Carpenter said this occurred under his predecessor and involved an officer who no longer works for the Sheriff’s Office. He said enforcement of school policies that don’t have the status of law should be up to administrators and not deputies, so that he wouldn’t allow that to happen today.

The question of whether some public officials may have abused their authority in regard to political activity at school events, and may have done so in a selective manner in the past, has candidates uncertain of what’s appropriate and what could result in their being accused of misconduct.

School board member Clayton Mullis, who chairs the board’s policy committee, has called for a review of this policy with an eye to making it much clearer.

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