Chapel Hill Parents Say School Board Vote On Magnet School Marred By Conflict of Interest

Nov 20, 2018

Credit Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools

Parents at Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools continue to voice concerns about their school board's September vote to convert an elementary school to a magnet school.

A group of parents say the deciding vote to convert it to a magnet school came from a board member who had a conflict of interest. Pat Heinrich has a daughter who attends the Mandarin program at Glenwood Elementary. He and other board members voted 4-3 in September to convert the elementary to a magnet school by expanding that program schoolwide. Students not in the program will likely move to other schools. The board has for months been considering changes to Glenwood Elementary to address overcrowding, and the conversion to a magnet school is one solution.

Several parents made a public records request for emails Heinrich sent to board members and parents of other children in the Mandarin program. They say one email in particular shows Heinrich coached parents to influence his fellow board members' votes. 

A number of community members spoke at the board's last meeting, saying they were concerned about the cost to convert the school in the face of other needs -- and concerned about the voting process. 

Shannon Kennedy approached the podium during the board's public comment period, saying she does not have children, but is a resident of the district and was not happy with the decision.

"It is the responsibility of the board of education to use the limited resources that are available in the wisest way, and in a way that benefits the most students throughout the school system," Kennedy said. "The board's decision to convert Glenwood Elementary into a Mandarin magnet school does not achieve either of those goals."

Kennedy went on to say that the board's lack of transparency regarding the vote was "shameful." The Mandarin program at Glenwood Elementary has also faced criticism because a majority of students did not finish the program last year, and because there are few African-American or Latino students enrolled in it.

Glenwood Elementary parent Samantha Fiske argued during the board's public comment period that any claim that the Mandarin dual language program lacks diversity does not take into account that a majority of the students in the program are of Asian descent.

School board chair Rani Dasi told WUNC the board's legal counsel has advised that Heinrich's vote does not violate any state laws governing conflict of interest. Dasi said any board member could request to take the vote again, but none have made that request.