AshevilleNews Stories

Board says, ‘Shut Up, Lisa!’

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By Roger McCredie-In the spring of 2011 a judge in Roxbury, New Jersey, ruled that the town’s board of education had exceeded its powers when it censured member Maureen Castriotta for criticizing the board’s superintendent and the principal of the local high school.

In vacating the censure, Judge Ellen Bass declared that it had violated Ms. Castriotta’s right to due process because the school board had set itself up “as prosecutor, jury and judge.”

It is not known whether the Buncombe County Board of Education was aware of this precedent when it passed a new provision for censuring members last week, but aware or not, it ramrodded through a measure, introduced at last month’s meeting and now labeled “Policy Code 2118: Censure of Board Members.” “A censure,” the policy explains, “is an expression of formal disapproval by the Board,” and “any legal consequences or punitive sanctions … shall be separate and distinct from any censure proceeding under this policy.

In fact, rookie board member Amy Churchill, who has pushed hard for the censure measure’s adoption, described it last month as “basically a little smack on the hand, make sure you don’t do that again. It’s just a statement of displeasure.”

Since existing board regulations already contain specific remedies for misconduct by members, the question arose at last week’s meeting, Why create a new provision that some say does nothing other than furnish the board with a way of expressing its collective “displeasure” towards a member, if it can muster the votes to do so? The answer, in the opinion of several members of the public at last week’s meeting, is that although the measure has “no teeth” legally, it was designed specifically to give the board a pseudo-official means of attacking and discrediting a single member who has been the raspberry seed under its corporate dentures for several years now: Reynolds district representative Lisa Baldwin.

Baldwin, a Fletcher housewife and mother, was elected to the board in 2010 and in short order began creating ripples on the normally glasslike surface of the pond of school board operations. Early on, she developed a tendency to question board plans and policies and to launch investigations of her own when she was not satisfied with the answers she got. When the board announced plans to build a STEM school as an addition to the BOE administrative offices on Bingham Road, Baldwin began producing testimony and evidence that pointed to contamination of groundwater and toxic vapor intrusion left over from prior industrial activity there. (That investigation is ongoing.) In April of 2012 she demanded that the board investigate charges that the school district’s electricians, as well as outside contractors, were deliberately not pulling the required permits for the work they were doing. She told WLOS-TV the board ignored her request “for months.” Just last month, she cast the lone dissenting vote when the board agreed to go forward with purchase of land for a new intermediate school in Enka, saying there were “too many unanswered questions.”

Her wait-just-a-minute approach to county schools governance has pretty well quashed any hope Baldwin may have entertained for being voted Miss Congeniality. Her tendency not to be clubby with her colleagues and her freelance crusading has been greeted with negativity ranging from exasperation to fury, and even with reprisal. Board vice chairman Pat Bryant, with whom Baldwin has often butted heads, accused her of misleading the public by saying her University of Maryland master’s degree was in economic policy and law. Bryant contacted the university and said he found Baldwin’s degree was actually in textiles and consumer economics. Baldwin responded that her law and economics studies were bona fide areas of concentration in that department.

Board Chairman Bob Rhinehart accused Baldwin of tying up valuable staff time by requesting research on matters coming before the board, and demanded that Baldwin direct her requests for information to Superintendent Tony Baldwin, who presumably would decide to what extent they were to be acted on. “I wouldn’t have to ask so many questions if I were getting the data in the right formats, which I am not,” Lisa Baldwin shot back.

But it was a hugely sensationalized incident last November that actually began linking the word “censure” to Baldwin’s name.

Baldwin was at loggerheads with Rhinehart over a procedural matter: a directive from Rhinehart that Baldwin said had not been placed on the board’s agenda for discussion. Baldwin considered this a high-handed move and asked, “The next meeting I come to, do I need to say, ‘Heil, Hitler’?”

That tore it. The Asheville Citizen-Times’ Casey Blake, who covers BOE meetings, promptly reported that Baldwin had “mocked” the board by giving a Nazi salute as she asked her rhetorical question, and Asheville’s substantial political correctness apparatus unleashed its full fury on Baldwin. Angry editorial letters and social media comments agreed that here was proof that Baldwin was not merely obstructionist but racist, or at least incredibly insensitive. Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle accused her of “trivializing the holocaust.” As for Baldwin, she stuck to her guns and wondered, in print, why people were more interested in the Nazi salute – which she denied having made – than in her reason for objecting to Rhinehart’s directive’s being exempted from board discussion.

(The Tribune extensively analyzed the video recording of the board meeting and could find no evidence that Baldwin gave a Nazi salute, either when she made her remark or at any other time. Boyle, when interviewed, grudgingly admitted that the alleged salute was “inconclusive” but said the Hitler reference was inappropriate.)

In the midst of all this furor, a mysterious anonymous letter surfaced. Addressed to Rhinehart, it said that Baldwin should be censured by the board, and it laid out specific parliamentary instructions for doing so. School officials emphatically denied that the letter could have come from any school board member and said they had no intention of acting on its advice. But the letter received heavy media attention. The censure genie was out of the bottle.

Responding to questions from the Tribune on Monday, school board attorney Chris Campbell said he crafted the draft censure proposal following an initial request last month from Amy Churchill. Campbell echoed Churchill’s assessment that the policy was only designed to provide an “orderly process” for censuring a member where none had previously existed.

Supt. Baldwin referred all questions to Campbell.

A local attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity, likened the passage of the censure provision to “opening Pandora’s box” and added, “see Proverbs 26:27.”

The King James Version of that verse reads, “Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein.”

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