Second of two parts-
By Roger McCredie- A bipartisan groundswell of public sympathy and support for Reynolds district school board member Lisa Baldwin has been building since the board’s last meeting.
That was when Baldwin, a frequent questioner of school board decisions and policy, as well as lone dissenter on many board resolutions, found herself ambushed – again – by her colleagues, joined this time by a former BOE employee and the board’s own legal counsel.
This time, however, actual videos of the board’s treatment of its resident gadfly reached social media, generating a substantial number of views and comments. Many viewers expressed dismay at what they said were savage personal attacks on Baldwin, and accused the board of deliberately disregarding parliamentary rules, allowing Baldwin’s assailants to speak freely while not allowing her to reply.
“I have my reservations about Baldwin. But I totally agree that she is bold enough to bring up issues that are crying out to be investigated and brought into to the light. The machine that runs Buncombe education must have the ACT [the Asheville Citizen-Times] bought and paid for,” one Facebook member posted.
Baldwin, who is running for re-election against former YWCA executive Cindy McMahon, appeared in a two-minute segment on Greenville television station WYFF (channel 4) which shares the Asheville media market with Asheville’s channel 13 and Spartanburg’s channel 7. She has stated that she was asked by WYFF to air her views, as part of a candidates-and-issues series put together by the station, and did not seek the air time herself.
As soon as the meeting’s public comment segment opened, third-grade teacher and McMahon campaign worker Paula Dinga criticized Baldwin for stating on television that Buncombe County has for the past three years led the state in criminal acts committed by students, as well as for citing an alleged 41 per cent cut on the county’s supplies and textbook budget and for mentioning that Buncombe schools have a dropout rate of one pupil in six. Dinga called Baldwin’s remarks “demoralizing,” chastised Baldwin for backing charter school vouchers that, she said, divert money from the school system, and ended by asking, “Is our credibility being undermined from within?”
Next up was Baldwin’s old nemesis, former BOE public relations officer Jan Blunt, who, according to reports, had resigned her position as a key member of McMahon’s election team specifically in order to be eligible to speak publicly against Baldwin.
Blunt began by citing several points she said showed “a pattern of attack” by Baldwin against “our school professionals.” (See “BOE Meeting Turns into Assault on Lisa Baldwin,” Oct. 8.) She then accused Baldwin of misrepresenting her academic credentials in the field of economics. “She has had problems with truth, she has problems with ethics, she accuses people of all sorts of crimes and ridiculous things, and most of all she has sent private information to the media and to the public,” Blunt added.
While both Dinga and Blunt criticized Baldwin’s televised comments about school dropout and student crime rates, neither made any attempt to challenge them. Baldwin took the unusual step of asking to speak from the podium during public comment, apparently to refute something said by Blunt, but before she could complete her first sentence, which began with a reference to Blunt’s January resignation, she was stopped by board attorney Chris Campbell, who told her that as a board member she could not discuss “personnel matters” in a public forum. Baldwin tried to rephrase her statement but was called down again by Campbell. Baldwin returned to her seat, but as she did so, she managed to fire a parting shot.
After repeating that she had been contacted by WYFF and not vice versa, she said, “North Carolina does rank highest in criminal acts by students over the last three years. We do have students without textbooks. We have county funding that has been cut … by forty-one per cent over the past three years. We have half of our third to eighth graders … not reading at grade level, and one out of six students dropping out in Buncombe County.
“Hopefully you all can make your own decisions about the comments that have been made tonight,” she said.
But the comments weren’t over.
Moments later the board prepared to vote on a resolution approving transfer of property to the county for construction of the new Enka Intermediate School. Baldwin asked why the project was being funded by a certificate of participation (COP), which essentially involves using property as collateral for a loan, and was speaking to possible alternative methods of financing, noting that “We’re already in debt.” She was interrupted again by Campbell and told him, “I have the floor for ten minutes.”
At that point, Owen representative Chip Craig said, “Can we stay on topic?”
“I am on topic,’ Baldwin replied, pointing out that she was discussing the resolution about to be voted on. “We’re going into debt – “ she repeated.
At that point Chairman Bob Rhinehart said, “Thank you” and recognized Commissioner Amy Churchill.
Churchill began by reading from a letter from county Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun to Baldwin, stating that although the county is already $400 million in debt, fifty-six per cent of the indebtedness had gone for education and was on track to be repaid within ten years with no increase in property tax.
When Baldwin began to reply, Rhinehart interrupted, saying, “Okay, we’re going to get back on topic right now, which is the resolution – “
“Mr. Chairman, I still have the floor,” Baldwin said.
“—Which is the transfer of the propwerty to the county,” Rhinehart continued. He then called for the vote, which, predictably, was 6-1 for, Baldwin dissenting. Baldwin then moved to suspend the rules and allow a vote on prequalification of bidders for construction to be voted on after a single reading.
“I feel we’re on shaky ground here, Baldwin said, “What’s the point of making rules if we are constantly going to suspend them?” She was told the prequalification process had in fact already started and the vote was necessary to validate that process.
When Baldwin resumed speaking, Rhinehart interrupted, saying. “This is turning into just another political speech.”
The last word belonged to Churchill, who said, “Since Mrs. Baldwin is really searching to put blame on somebody, I’d like for you [Baldwin] to take a look at yourself. One of the huge gaps in funding is the $11 million that is going to vouchers and could have gone to the public school system. You … campaigned on those vouchers – “
“Point of order,” said Baldwin. Churchill exploded.
“Do NOT interrupt me!” Churchill snapped, glaring at Baldwin.
“Mrs. Baldwin, you’ve had your opportunity to speak,” said Rhinehart.
“ – I am speaking to you,” Churchill said loudly, “and” – here she pointed emphatically towards the audience – “and definitely speaking for the public, who are right out there.” Here she was interrupted by applause, apparently from Blunt and Dinga. “If anybody is to blame – do NOT laugh, this is NOT FUNNY – this is my child’s education! You may not care about public education, but I swear to you, Mrs. Baldwin, I do,” she yelled. “I have had enough of your bad behavior!”
“Would you allow a rebuttal?” Baldwin asked Rhinehart.
“We don’t need another political speech,” the chairman said, and he called for the question, which was nominating Buncombe County commissioners as North Carolina Commissioners of the Year. The vote was 6-1, Baldwin dissenting.
“The gist of what happened,” longtime observer Mark Cates said later, “was that the School Board Chairman was more than happy to see that those who attacked Lisa Baldwin on whatever she said had ample opportunity to do so in whatever vituperative manner they chose.”
“I felt like I was watching the Harper Valley PTA,” a commenter said on Facebook.
Former longtime teacher Linda Humphries asked, “Do the ‘officials’ in Buncombe teach a course called ‘Kill The Messenger?’ This pattern of behavior is rampant in local government. Then too, this is a self-preservation tactic. I guess they want to preserve their high paying positions verses improving education via exchange of ideas.
“Clearly, they are protecting their territory. Lisa Baldwin is too forthright to ignore the facts and bow to the frontal assaults. Never, ever, has she exhibited self-serving, self-preservation behaviors,” she said.
“I was dismayed to see … the BOE members attacking Lisa that way. I wish the live viewing would discourage that. Whatever the right choice is, those kind of politics are disgusting.” Another viewer said.
Several social media members called attention to the more than $15,000 – an unusually large amount — raised by McMahon’s campaign to unseat Baldwin, as opposed to the $1,000 recorded by Baldwin’s campaign,.and noted that the list of McMahon’s contributors included the re-election campaign funds of county commissioners Holly Jones, city councilman Gordon Smith and state Sen. Terry VanDuyn,
“They really, really want [Baldwin] gone,” one member said.