Buncombe County School Board members have received an anonymous letter calling for the censure of a member who made unflattering remarks about discussion procedures at the board’s November meeting.
The letter calls member Lisa Baldwin’s conduct “reprehensible and inexcusable” and tells other members, “If you fail to respond you are, by your silence, endorsing her behavior.” It then says, “This is how it could be done,” and sets out, in considerable detail, instructions for a parliamentary gambit to set up Ms. Baldwin’s formal censure.
However Board Chairman Bob Rhinehart says he has “no intention” of asking the board to take any action on the letter. He says he received his copy by snail mail on plain paper in a plain envelope and distributed it to other board members by e-mail “in case they didn’t get copies, because I wanted them to be aware it had been received.”
At the November meeting, Ms. Baldwin objected to a directive from Rhinehart relating to how board members should interact with the school Superintendent, claiming Rhinehart’s written “clarification” amounted to an agenda item and should therefore have been submitted in advance, as required by board policy. She said procedure as outlined by Rhinehart limited the board’s ability to ask questions and to make motions.
“The next meeting I come to, do I need to say, ‘Heil Hitler’?” Baldwin asked. Meeting attendees and several media outlets reported that she also gave a “mocking” Nazi salute, which she flatly denies having done. “I do talk with my hands,” Baldwin said, “but my arm is firmly on the table top in the video [of the meeting].” An examination of the videotape, including freeze-frames and magnification, appears to confirm Baldwin’s statement.
The Hitler reference was widely reported and caused a moderate sensation. Baldwin was pilloried on the Internet and in local mainstream media. Asheville Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle accused Baldwin of attempting to “trivialize the Holocaust,” describing Baldwin as “often inflammatory” and saying she “has drifted farther and farther from constructive advocacy and more into accusations seemingly aimed to impugn the ethics and morality of fellow school board members and staff.”
Rhinehart shrugged off the “Hitler” reference, saying, “Nobody likes to be called names and anyway I’m just one vote out of seven, but she has the right to say what she thinks. I did hear from several folks who were pretty offended by her choice of words, though,” he said.
Baldwin stuck to her guns. In a Citizen-Times story titled “Board member mocks with Nazi salute,” she said “My reference to Nazi Germany is that those people were also restricted and muzzled, and I question the democracy of our board.”
Certainly Baldwin has been noted for assuming the role of gadfly (she prefers “conscience”) to the board since her election in 2010, questioning issues ranging from proper oversight of roofing projects to proposed location of a school site near an allegedly contaminated groundwater area. She has sometimes found herself on the short end of six-to-one board votes. More to the point, she says, she has been subjected to a pattern of backbiting and even intimidation.
“I’ve had anonymous letters and e-mails. I’ve even had a picture of myself sent to me with a suggestion that I should wear a girdle to board meetings. I’ve had four letters from [board attorney] Chris Campbell in the past month or so, telling me I need to retain my own personal lawyer because of complaints made about me – but when I’ve asked him what the complaints are about, he’s said he can’t tell me.” By the Tribune’s press time, Campbell had not returned a voicemail request for comment.
In addition, Baldwin says, fellow board member Pat Bryant early on claimed that Baldwin had misrepresented the nature of her graduate degree by indicating that she had more of an economics background than she actually received. According to Baldwin, Bryant contacted the University of Maryland, where she received an MS degree, to determine exactly how many graduate economics courses she had taken. Baldwin’s website resume shows she received her master’s degree in the field of Consumer Economics with concentrations in Policy and Law, was a teaching assistant and held a Henry Weil fellowship.
When asked, Bryant told the Tribune he had indeed contacted the university. “I read her credentials as they appeared on her website and hadn’t heard of a degree with that title. I did a Google search and that’s how I eventually ended up calling the Maryland registrar’s office.” Bryant said he was told that there was no such degree title in the university’s graduate program, but reported that Baldwin had received her master’s degree in Textiles, a program which includes some economics studies. “Nobody has to have a master’s degree to sit on the Board, but misrepresentation is a serious thing,” Bryant said.
Like Rhinehart, Bryant said he has no clue as to where the anonymous censure letter came from. For her part, Baldwin says she’s “disappointed” that reaction to her remarks has concentrated on their superficial meaning. “I’d rather people concentrate on the issues that caused me to speak out, rather than the way in which I did it,” she says.