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North Carolina School Boards Consider Remote Meeting Attendance Policies

Some school boards are relaxing their rules to allow members to participate in meetings by phone when they can't make it in person.

(TNS) — DURHAM, N.C. — Last week, members of the Wake County school board boasted that the board made history when a member of the body became the first to participate in one of its meetings via telephone.

As reported by The News and Observer in Raleigh, board member Christine Kushner, who was traveling overseas with her husband, phoned into a board meeting, listened to discussions and voted on agenda items.

The Wake board adopted a "remote participation in board meetings" policy in March that allows board members to participate remotely in any meeting that is not a closed session, a hearing appeal or other quasi-judicial proceeding.

Durham school board members also participate in meetings remotely, but they do so without the benefit of such a board policy.

Instead, School District Attorney Ken Soo said, Durham board members utilize the state's Open Meetings Law, "under which electronic meetings are permissible so long as the public can hear what is going on."

Still, Mike Lee, who was elected board chairman earlier this month by his colleagues, said he is open to considering a board policy to govern remote attendance.

With the technology now making it possible to participate in meetings remotely, Lee said it is time to consider a policy to accommodate public officials' ever-changing and demanding schedules.

"Although we want everyone to be here in person, it's not always possible," Lee said.

Last month, School board member Sendolo Diaminah, facing scrutiny for poor meeting attendance, participated briefly in the board's final regular business meeting of the 2015-16 school year by telephone.

Diaminah told The Herald-Sun that he has missed meetings due to out-of-town travel as part of his work as a national organizer with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Earlier this month, school board member Minnie Forte-Brown participated in the board's swearing-in ceremony and organizational meeting via telephone.

Forte-Brown, who was re-elected to the board in March and was due to be sworn in with two new members, was sworn in a couple of days earlier so that she could attend a family event out-of-town.

Under the policy adopted by the Wake school board, both reasons would have been covered.

The Wake policy allows members to participate remotely due to personal illness or disability, out-of-town travel, unexpected lack of child care, family member illness or emergency, weather conditions, military service, employment obligations or a scheduling conflict.

"Remote participation is not to be used solely for a Board member's convenience or to avoid attending a particular meeting in person," the Wake policy reads.

The policy also states that board members may not participate remotely more than three times during a calendar year unless two-thirds of the board agrees to waive the limitation.

Meanwhile, Lee said he is not certain when the Durham board will have a discussion about a policy to cover board members who participate in meetings remotely.

He said he does believes that such a policy, after consultation with the North Carolina School Board Association, would be found "acceptable" by his colleagues.

©2016 The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.