By Catharin Shepard
Lawyer Carolyn Murchison was told “not to come back” to her duties as school board attorney after tension arose with some of the board members, but the matter was not brought before all five board members for a vote, according to board member Rosa McAllister-McRae.
McAllister-McRae said that while she was speaking informally with the attorney, she learned Murchison had apparently been dismissed without a vote of the full board.
School board Chairwoman Angela Southerland said that a “majority” of board members made the decision, but it wasn’t clear when or where a vote took place, as two board members said they hadn’t known about it and McAllister-McRae said she didn’t think she’d missed attending any meetings.
Murchison has not been present at board meetings in several months. Attorney Rod Malone of the same law firm has been serving as school board attorney during the meetings.
“I know I asked you, where’s Carolyn? And you told me she was on vacation,” McAllister-McRae said, speaking to Malone.
When she called, Murchison was on vacation, Malone confirmed. But soon after, McAllister-McRae said, she heard something different directly from the attorney herself.
“I’m texting her like, I heard you were on vacation, I hope you have a great time, yada yada, and I was like when will I see you? And she told me that she was told not to come anymore. And I didn’t know that,” McAllister-McRae said. “I wanted to ask (Interim Superintendent) Dr. (Shannon) Register, why did you tell her that she wasn’t needed here, or not to come anymore?”
The interim superintendent denied dismissing the attorney.
“I never said anything like that to Ms. Murchison. That wouldn’t be my place to say anything like that to her,” Register said.
McAllister-McRae said she had assumed it would have been Register who spoke to the attorney.
“I know the board didn’t make a decision. I think I’ve been here (at the meetings),” she said. The interim superintendent said she would have to “turn that over to Madame Chair,” speaking of Southerland. McAllister-McRae later publicly apologized to Register.
Board member Keisha Gill spoke up to say she also had not been aware that the attorney had been told not to come back, though she had known there was some “disgruntlement.”
“I know that we all had our differences, our concerns about certain things about Ms. Murchison, but I do feel like even though we had our differences, we still should have brought it back to the board so that we could do openly…like if she’s going to be dismissed,” Gill said.
“Who dismissed her?” McAllister-McRae asked.
“I’m making a statement as a board in general, it should have been brought back to the board so everybody would know what was going on,” she said.
At that point Rod Malone, who was serving as attorney, confirmed for the board that discussion of the lawyer position is not something handled in closed session, but rather in open session.
“We’re happy to have it (that discussion), I’ll defer to the chair but feel free to discuss it,” he said.
Board member Ruben Castellon pointed out that the board contracts with the law firm which provides a school board attorney, not with any specific attorney individually.
“Based on my understanding, when we go into the contract with the firm, we go into the contract with the firm, that’s my understanding,” he said.
McAllister-McRae spoke up, and Castellon asked the chairwoman if he could have the floor to continue speaking.
“We’re talking about consuming our times, wanting to go home. Some discussions don’t need to be had here right now,” Castellon said, referring to a separate issue over the length of the board’s meetings.
McAllister-McRae said she did feel the discussion was important.
“So I understanding what you’re saying. I think the discussion needs to be had because I don’t know…and as a board member I should know,” she said. “I just want to know what’s going on…”
“All I’m saying is as a board, as a Hoke County school board, we should all be on the same page. When I didn’t know and she told me that she was asked not to return, those were her words, she was asked not to return, no one had a discussion with me or, I don’t know if y’all discussed it, but we were not around the table and said hey, we need to discuss something. And one person cannot make a decision for the whole board. That’s all I’m saying.”
“The majority can. And the majority did,” Southerland responded.
“If the majority did, I didn’t even know,” McAllister-McRae said to the chairwoman. “So all four of you did –“
“A majority is three,” Southerland said.
“All I’m saying, Angela, this is going to happen time and time again if we’re not transparent,” McAllister-McRae said. “If we’re not putting things on the table. It doesn’t matter how I would vote or what I should say. At least I should know as a board member. That’s all I’m saying. I did not know until I asked her.
“Three is the majority, but where did the vote take place?” McAllister-McRae continued. “I don’t think I’ve missed a meeting. Or was it outside of this? If it was outside of this, it wasn’t a meeting, it was a meeting outside of the board. My issue is, we all need to know what’s going on…whether the majority said anything or not, we all should know.”
None of the board members said he or she was the one to speak to Murchison.
Castellon previously spoke up at the end of a board meeting earlier this year to raise concerns about how Murchison handled affairs during board meetings.
Castellon said he thought there should be a way for the board’s attorney “to be a little bit more tactful” when the attorney is speaking up to correct the board chair.
“We’re still learning, and I’m going to tell you right now, it upsets me,” Castellon said at the meeting in March. “What people see here is Madame Chair is not in control, and we should never put the chair in a position to where people think – and it’s been brought to my attention, I’ve been asked, who is running the board, is it the chair board or is it the lawyer? And I don’t like that at all. We are the board.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong but the lawyer works for us, and there’s just a more tactful way – that was the whole reason why we agreed to put you there to ensure when something was not going the way it should be,” Castellon said. “Just find a different way, because I don’t like that. We’re supposed to be respecting each other and there’s a better way other than trying to put people on the spot.”
That was apparently the last school board meeting Murchison attended in Hoke County. Some of her work continued to be brought into play for the board after the fact, as Murchison caught that several contracts had been signed last summer without being brought before the school board for a vote, Malone said at a meeting in April.
Malone said last week that the firm both he and Murchison are attached to is working to provide a permanent board attorney for Hoke County Schools.
The meeting last Tuesday was a workshop held at the Digital Learning Center on Bethel Road in Raeford. The meeting was not broadcast for the public, unlike the board’s typical meetings which are held the second Tuesday of each month at the Hoke High Media Center. Members of the public were not present but would have been allowed, as workshop meetings are open meetings. At the same workshop meeting, the board approved its local budget request for the 2023-2024 school year, among other business.