Daily Press article: school board didn't give proper notice

Gloucester School Board to hold T.C. Walker hearing after attorney weighs in

Lack of notice on vote of closure of T.C. Walker Elementary School criticized

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Matt Sabo/Daily Press file photo The Gloucester School Board will hold a public hearing Thursday night on plans to close T.C. Walker Elementary School. (Handout, Daily Press / March 29, 2011)

By Matt Sabomsabo@dailypress.com | 757-247-7872

11:23 p.m. EDT, April 23, 2012

GLOUCESTER— A Richmond attorney who specializes in representing school boards advised the Gloucester County School Board on April 11 that it had failed to comply with a state law requiring public notice it was considering action to close a school.

As a result, the Gloucester County School Board will hold a public hearing Thursday night to allow residents to comment on plans to consolidate the county's six elementary schools into five by closing T.C. Walker Elementary.

The School Board sought the opinion of D. Patrick Lacy Jr. following an April 10 meeting at which board members and school administrators had differing opinions on whether the board violated the state's open meetings law in voting to close the school. TheGloucester School Board voted 4-3 on March 13 to close T.C. Walker Elementary during a discussion of the school system's proposed 2012-13 budget.

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By law, a school board is required to obtain public comment prior to voting on closing a school and to advertise the hearing in a newspaper of general circulation in the school division at least 10 days in advance of the meeting.

Messages left Monday for members of the School Board, including Chairwoman Anita Parker, and Superintendent Ben Kiser were not returned.

Discussions of closing the school and the ensuing vote prompted an outcry from county residents, particularly among parents of T.C. Walker Elementary students and members of Gloucester's black community, who viewed the school as a cultural and historical landmark named for the county's most celebrated black resident.

Thomas Calhoun Walker was born a slave in 1862 before being educated at Hampton Institute largely on the force of his will not to be denied an education. He later became the county's first black attorney, founded a company that supported land acquisition by blacks and was twice elected to the Board of Supervisors, serving from 1891-95.

More than 1,200 residents have signed petitions seeking to keep the school open. In addition, School Board member Kevin Smith said at a March 29 joint meeting with the Board of Supervisors that the School Board hadn't listened to county residents in voting to close T.C. Walker Elementary.

Smith also said the School Board failed to follow the law by not holding a public hearing prior to voting to close the school.

The Daily Press made a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of Lacy's memo from the Gloucester County Public School System on Wednesday. The request was denied on the grounds that Lacy's memo was a confidential document protected by the attorney-client privilege.

The Daily Press subsequently obtained a copy of Lacy's 2-page memo from a Gloucester resident.

Lacy said in his memo that the School Board held a public hearing at its Feb. 29 meeting. He wrote that "there is no question that the public was given several opportunities to comment on the possibility of closing T.C. Walker and that the public took full advantage of those opportunities to express its views on the subject."

But Lacy said the question was whether the technical requirements of providing notice and a public hearing were met. The Feb. 29 public hearing was on the proposed division budget; no notice of a hearing for closing T.C. Walker Elementary was given prior to the meeting.

"Under these circumstances, I think it is likely that a court of competent jurisdiction would hold that the Board did not comply with the notice and public hearing requirements of the statute," Lacy wrote.

On April 12, the day after receiving the memo from Lacy, the School Board scheduled the Thursday public hearing, to be held at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of T.C. Walker Elementary School, "for the express purpose of receiving comments from citizens on the proposed consolidation of T.C. Walker Elementary School" and the redistribution of students to the five other elementary schools in the district, according to an email sent by the Clerk of the School Board.

Following the public hearing, the School Board is expected to take action on the "repurposing" of T.C. Walker Elementary School and the redistricting of students, according to the public notice.