BEAUFORT — A ruling could come by the end of the week regarding a request to dismiss a complaint filed by a group of parents and students against the Carteret County Board of Education seeking enrollment of freshmen students this school year at the Marine Science and Technologies Early College High School.
Superior Court Judge Josh Willey from New Bern presided over the hearing, held remotely Monday over Webex.
Attorney Ken Soo of the Tharrington Smith Law Firm in Raleigh presented the school system’s motion to dismiss and argument. Attorney Ann Paradis of Durham presented the counter arguments on behalf of 13 MaST students who are the plaintiffs. Four of those students were applicants for the freshman class and the others are upper classmen.
MaST parents filed an amended complaint and a motion for a preliminary injunction in early September seeking a court order to force enrollment of freshmen students. This came after the school board voted in June to not allow a freshman class this year, citing budget concerns.
The board voted to suspend enrollment of the freshmen class, only allowing sophomores and juniors to continue this year at the school. Members further asked MaST officials to focus on building up the number of students in those two grades.
Ms. Paradis said in an email Wednesday she withdrew the original complaint to amend it to add a breach of contract claim “as the school board and CCC (Carteret Community College) have an agreement to operate MaST for the benefit of eligible students but the board has breached the agreement.” The school meets on the campus of CCC.
The group parents claim the school board’s decision is an effort to eventually close the school. They further claim the board’s decision “was arbitrary and capricious because it lacked fair and careful consideration, failed to indicate the exercise of judgment, and failed to follow procedures in the application of annually admitting 50 freshmen to MaST.”
The complaint further states the board’s decision to deny freshmen acceptance into MaST for the 2020-21 school year and the resulting partial and constructive closure of the school prior to giving plaintiffs notice and the opportunity to be heard “violated the procedural due process rights of Plaintiffs guaranteed the North Carolina Constitution.”
The group also included additional claims for relief, seeking an order requiring the school board to “perform its duties under the MaST application and all applicable (Memorandum of Understandings).”
In response, the firm of Tharrington Smith Law Firm, on behalf of the school board, filed a motion to dismiss the compliant “for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because Plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the Board’s decision.”
The board’s response also states the complaint should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction “because Plaintiffs have failed to exhaust their administrative remedies.”
The board’s attorney further states the complaint should be dismissed “for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
In addition, the board’s attorney states the group’s amended complaint contains numerous allegations regarding statements by individual board members made during meetings held June 2 and Aug. 4. The attorney asked the paragraphs be stricken pursuant to Rule 12(f) of the N.C. Rules of Civil Procedure under principles of legislative immunity “because they contain no allegations relevant to any of Plaintiffs’ claims and, as such, are irrelevant and immaterial.”
In a brief response to the board’s request to dismiss the complaint, Ms. Paradis states the court should not dismiss the amended complaint pursuant to N.C. Rules of Civil Procedure and as the court has subject matter jurisdiction and the “Plaintiffs stated a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Complaint seeks to have the Court find that Defendant violated the requirements of the North Carolina Constitution and breached the 2019 Memorandum of Understanding and the 2020 Memorandum of Understanding.”
Jaymie Kerstein of Newport, one of the parents named in the complaint, said in an email to the News-Times Tuesday, “How ironic is it the board of education is so willing to spend thousands of tax dollars on legal fees, and proudly advertise ‘a team of attorneys....intensively working on the defense since the case was filed,’ but claims budget issues are to blame as the only drive to close MaST?”
There have been many twists and turns since the school board voted in June to not allow freshmen to enroll this year. After citing budget concerns, the General Assembly agreed in July to allocate $200,000 to the school, which allows students to earn college and high school credits simultaneously.
While MaST parents hoped that would cause the board to reconsider the decision and reinstate the freshman class, BOE Chairperson John McLean said because the funds weren’t recurring, he and other board members weren’t comfortable doing so. The sole board member who has supported having freshmen at the school is Melissa Ehlers, whose effort to reinstate the freshman class was shot down by lack of a second following her motion at the Aug. 4 meeting.
Then, at the Sept. 1 meeting, school system Finance Officer Kathy Carswell reported the N.C. Department of Public Instruction notified her on Aug. 25 the state agreed to fund the principal’s position at MaST for the 2020-21 academic year. Ms. Carswell said the state agreed to provide $110,000 for the position, however, that may not be provided again next year. She had originally planned to use county funds to cover the principal’s position.
At the Aug. 4 board meeting, Ms. Carswell said MaST’s total budget for 2020-21 is $455,958. Of that, $245,958 was scheduled to come from county commissioners, with $200,000 in state Cooperative Innovative High School funding and $10,000 in state textbook funding. She didn’t say how the new $110,000 in state funding would factor into the budget.
Parents named in the complaint have retained the same firm that represented MaST parents in July 2019 when the BOE voted to close the school over a lack of funding. After standing room-only crowds protested the closure of the school and parents sought a preliminary injunction and filed a civil complaint, the board approved keeping the school open for the 2019-20 academic year. In addition, CCC offered funds to keep the school going that year.
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.