Judge orders Alamance-Burlington schools to release one paragraph from closed session minutes

On Monday, Judge Mike O'Foghludha ordered the Alamance-Burlington School System to release one paragraph out of 40 pages of closed session minutes from a 2014 meeting during which Superintendent Lillie Cox resigned with a $200,000 severance package. The order was stayed to give the school system time to appeal the decision in the long-running open records case. 

The Alamance-Burlington School System Board of Education held a closed session in May 2014 to consider the performance of Superintendent Lillie Cox. At the end of the session, Cox resigned and was given a $200,000 severence package. The Times-News of Burlington subsequently asked for copies of the closed session minutes under the Public Records Law. 

Closed session minutes are public records subject to disclosure, but the Open Meetings Law allows them to be withheld as long as the release would “frustrate the purpose of the closed session.” Citing that provision in the open meetings law, the school system released heavily redacted minutes from the closed session. The Times-News then sued in October of 2014 arguing that the redacted minutes did not comply with the Public Records Law.

In the 15 months since the newspaper filed its lawsuit, the newspapers case was denied in Superior Court, made its way up to the N.C. Supreme Court on a procedural question, and had it returned to the the N.C. Court of Appeals, which ruled in July that a Superior Court judge must review the unredacted minutes to determine whether any policy discussions were held in closed session. 

In October, Superior Court Judge Mike O’Foghludha received a complete copy of the minutes to review in his chambers and determine whether any portion of them should be subject to release. Monday, he ordered the school system to release one paragraph out of the 40 pages of minutes from the closed session. O’Foghludha found that the majority of the discussion dealt with personnel issues that could be withheld, but that one small portion did not. He then stayed his order to give the school system time to decide whether or not it would appeal. 

On Tuesday night, the board of education went into closed session to discuss the case, but made no public pronouncements about its intentions. School board chairman Steve Van Pelt told the Times-News that the board’s attorney would be filing additional paperwork with the court soon, and the schools will have a statement at that time. 

Read coverage from the Times-News here