NHCS provides redacted meeting minutes offering little insight into pay out of former superintendent

WECT investigates the former NHC school superintendent's severance package

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - It’s been more than 10 months since the New Hanover County School Board voted to approve an agreement allowing former Superintendent Tim Markley to resign - granting him more than $200,000 worth of benefits.

Markley faced criticism from many in the community after multiple teachers were arrested and charged with sex crimes against students in a two-year span.

The agreement to pay Markley $195,000 in severance along with $32,966.66 in benefits caused some residents to question the actions of the board.

Parents of students in the county school system called for Markley to be fired, however, for reasons still not clear, the school board opted to give him the severance package.

Despite the public outcry and questioning of the actions taken, the school board has continued to be tight lipped about their reasons for not firing Markley and granting him the severance.

In an effort to shed some light on the situation, WECT requested closed meeting minutes from the school board’s meetings which took place around the time Markley resigned.

The school system heavily redacted the meeting minutes, making it difficult to follow any conversations that would have taken place regarding the decision.

Meeting minutes from closed sessions in January and February of 2020 were requested in February – copies of those minutes were not provided to WECT until December 15, 2020 – approximately 10 months later.

In North Carolina, elected boards are permitted to go into ‘closed session,’ that is, meetings held behind closed doors and out of the public eye. There are, however, restrictions as to why boards can meet in private, and even when meeting behind closed doors, minutes are to be taken.

“Every public body shall keep full and accurate minutes of all official meetings, including any closed sessions held pursuant to G.S. 143-318.11. . . . Such minutes and accounts shall be public records within the meaning of the Public Records Law, G.S. 132-1 et seq.; provided, however, that minutes or an account of a closed session conducted in compliance with G.S. 143-318.11 may be withheld from public inspection so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session,” according to state law cited by the school system.

The school system left out the part of that law that reads “When a public body meets in closed session, it shall keep a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired.”

The minutes provided do not offer such understanding.

“If the meeting can be closed under one of the provisions of the law, say for example they are going to talk about personnel issues, then the law says not only do they have to provide and keep minutes of the meeting, they have to keep a general account of what takes place,” N.C. Press Association Lawyer Amanda Martin said.

What is discussed behind closed doors might seem confidential but there are not laws prohibiting elected officials from discussing these items outside of the meeting.

“The disclosure of information from closed sessions is extremely controversial. Most elected officials assume that there is a prohibition, since the ability to disclose information undermines the practical and strategic purposes of going into close session in the first place,” according to the UNC School of Government.

When it comes to personnel matters, state law does require boards keep their discussions private - in most situations. However, state law allows public bodies to release information related to disciplinary actions when it is necessary to do so in order to maintain the public confidence.

This is what happened when the Wilmington Police Department released information regarding the discussions of police officers caught on camera making racist remarks over the summer.

The New Hanover County Board of Education has issued little in terms of comments on the redaction, but chairwoman Stepfanie Adams did respond to a request for comment.

“The district provided redacted closed session minutes consistent with N.C.G.S. § 143-318.10(e) in order to protect confidential personnel, student, and attorney-client information. There has been a significant transition in personnel managing the public records request process since the beginning of the year when your requests were first made,” she said.

Regardless of the reason for secrecy, questions still remain as to why the board opted to pay Markley six figures as opposed to firing him.

Markley, as are other superintendents, worked for the school system as a contracted employee and could only be terminated for “good cause.”

Firing him could have been somewhat more difficult, and potentially costly if he were to file a wrongful termination suit against the board.

So, what constitutes “good cause?” WECT previously reported on what it would take to fire the superintendent but state law lists 15 different grounds for dismissal ranging in severity from felony convictions to advocating for the overthrow of the government.

In October of 2019, Markley was suspended without pay for five days – the most strict punishment the board can impose apart from termination – for trying to silence a critic and professor at UNCW.

One of the reasons the board likely has stayed silent on the agreement with Markley is the contract included a non-disparagement provision.

It reads, “Each current board member agrees that he or she shall not make any disparaging statements or comments, written or oral, about Dr. Markely or his actions or performance while he was employed by the New Hanover County Board of Education...”

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