[Editor’s note, update for recent events: During the Hoke County Board of Education workshop meeting Tuesday, May 23, attorney Rod Malone of Tharrington Smith announced the law firm has resigned from working with the school board. That story will be in next week’s issue of The News-Journal.]
By Catharin Shepard • Editor • School board Chairwoman Angela Southerland was “extremely fed up” with board attorney Carolyn Murchison and did not want to continue working with her, according to emails from Southerland.
School board emails released last week to the News-Journal as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed the chairwoman felt Murchison was sarcastic and disrespectful, and that the school board planned to seek someone else for the attorney position at least in part due to “trust issues.” In another email, Southerland asked Murchison whether she worked for the school board or the school district’s superintendent.
The school district contracts with the Tharrington Smith law firm, not with any individual attorney at the firm, and is not required to take a vote on requesting a different attorney within the firm.
An email from Southerland on March 20, 2023 to Tharrington Smith attorney Rod Malone said the following:
“Hi Attorney Malon! I hope you had a great weekend! I have a few questions,
(Question 1 redacted)
2. When is Attorney Murchison last day with the Board?
3. Do she have to be at our Agenda planning meeting?
4. If we are not voting on anything, why do we need an attorney present?
5. Is it possible that you be our Board Attorney? Will it be too much for you?
We will take a fill-in temporarily, but we will be seeking someone else for our Board Attorney. We all are having trust issues right now.
Please let me know your thoughts!
Thank you, Chair Southerland”
Southerland’s email March 27 to Malone at Tharrington Smith said the chairwoman didn’t want Murchison sitting in on future school board meetings.
The email stated as follows:
After receiving the email from Carolyn, I am wondering where you are with the Board’s request.
Since you stated that it would take some time for the Firm to make arrangements, I am going to request to the Board that we seek a local Attorney to cover our Board until such arrangements are final. I do not want Carolyn sitting in no more Board meeting.”
Southerland went on to say in the March 27 email, “I am extremely fed up with Carolyn’s sarcasm and disrespect at this time. I do not want to continue working with this type of Behavior from her. To confirm as the majority of the Board, this decision was expressed to me months ago and I held the wishes of my Board. Also, to mention, Ruben (Castellon) expressed to her in a public live meeting how he disliked her disrespect towards me, yet it appears that every opportunity she gets her actions show the same.”
In the March 27 email, Southerland referenced that a “majority” of the board had expressed the decision to Southerland “months ago,” but it wasn’t clear exactly how or when the chairwoman gathered a consensus. Two board members, Rosa McAllister-McRae and Keisha Gill, expressed at a school board workshop meeting April 25 that they had been unaware of any decision among board members to dismiss Murchison. McAllister-McRae first brought up the topic.
“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 (Murchison) 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,” McAllister-McRae said at the workshop meeting in April.
In response, Southerland said that “the majority can” and “the majority did,” and noted that the “majority is three” on the five-member board.
The email from March 27 was sent to all five of the board members. At a school board meeting earlier this month, board member Ruben Castellon alleged his fellow board member was guilty of dereliction of duty for not having read the email.
Southerland’s email from March 27 included a reference to an email from Murchison on March 24, which was also forwarded.
“Angela, Ryan Parker with MetCon is asking about when he can expect to receive their contract. I’ve reached out to Marsha, and she confirmed that she hasn’t yet gotten your signature. If you could, it would be very helpful for you to swing by the office today and take care of that. Thank you, Carolyn.”
Southerland wrote March 27, “To you Carolyn, to you statement, ‘Acquiring signatures as board meetings is not a task managed by the board attorney, but I’m happy to forward your message to Marsha so she can make arrangements with you. Best, Carolyn.’ You know that I was referring to the below email. There is no need for your sarcasm nor for you to say anything Marsha I will, it cost too much for you to send an email.
Therefore Carolyn, since this is not a task managed by the Board the Attorney, then let Marsha do her task by contacting me. I do not need any reminders from you, especially when you’re being sarcastic.
Attorney Malon, the firm need to resolve the Board’s concerns asap! Thanks Chair Angela”
After the News-Journal published a story about the matter May 3, Southerland sent an email to the other board members, attorney Rod Malone and the interim superintendent, saying she “will not tolerate being humiliated again publicly by any Hoke County School Board Members that should know policy.”
In the May 4 email, Southerland referenced a different email conversation between herself and Murchison from January that was forwarded along with Southerland’s email.
The email January 25, 2023 from Southerland to Murchison said,
“Attorney Murchison, for the past couple of weeks your position for the Board is questionable. After last night meeting, further concerns me.
Therefore, I need you to please inform me today your position with the Hoke County School Board. Meaning are the School Board Attorney or are you the Superintendent’s Attorney?
At the time of that email to Murchison, Dr. Debra Dowless was serving as Hoke County Schools Superintendent. The school district accepted Dowless’ resignation a few weeks later on February 13, 2023.
Murchison responded to Southerland in an email dated January 26, 2023.
“Angela, I tried calling you a couple of times yesterday and hate we missed each other. This is probably easier to discuss in a conversation than in an email, but I can assure you that we do not in any way represent any individual in the school system, including the superintendent. We represent the Hoke County Schools, and as attorneys for the District, our role is to assist the Board in achieving its goals and fulfilling all of its obligations. In a separate email to the full board, I will share a handout that better explains who we are. If you have any follow-up questions, please don’t hesitate to give me a call.”
In her email May 4, Southerland referenced that conversation from January.
“Please Do Not Reply to this email
The forwarded email is a conversation via email that I had with Attorney Carolyn Murchison questioning her position as the Attorney. This stemmed from her actions towards me and the Board at previous meetings.
You will see that she (Attorney Murchison) NEVER answered me with a YES. Attorney Murchison answered me stating “We represent the Hoke County Schools, and as attorneys for the District, our role is to assist the Board in achieving its goals and fulfilling all of its obligations.” We meaning Tharrington Smith L.L.P.
Today, it was very appalling to view The News Journals article with information that should have been understood by the School Board members. Tharrington Smith, L.L.P. are still contracted with the Hoke County Board not individual attorneys of the Firm, meaning any of you could sit with us.
Therefore, as Board Chair or Board Member, I will not tolerate being humiliated again publicly by any Hoke County School Board Members that should know policy.
I have stated before in a few meetings that we should respect one another. If we cannot respect one another than we should expect the same treatment in return.
The first day of training, the 3 new Board members were told ‘Do not embarrass the Superintendent.’ I am saying this day forward do not embarrass the Board Chair, Vice-Chair nor any Board of Education member.”
The News-Journal reached out to Southerland by email last week seeking comment and further clarification on the matter. Southerland had not responded as of deadline Tuesday.
A previous email sent to Southerland two weeks ago, requesting comment and clarification on the matter, did not receive a direct response. Southerland contacted Malone and copied the News-Journal on the email, asking the attorney to ask the News-Journal for a copy of a recording of the April 25 workshop meeting before she answered the News-Journal’s questions.
Malone has since reached out to the News-Journal, and the News-Journal has provided a recording of the discussion in question to the attorney.
Southerland, along with Vice Chairwoman Catherine Blue and member Ruben Castellon, were elected to four-year terms in November 2022 and were sworn into office in December 2022. Board members Keisha Gill and Rosa McAllister-McRae were elected to their current four-year terms in office in 2020.
Tharrington Smith has served as the board’s representation since 2018, when former board attorney Nick Sojka resigned to take a similar job with Cumberland County Schools. The firm also previously worked with the district on the construction of Sandy Grove Middle School in 2013. At the time the school district hired Tharrington Smith five years ago, the law firm was representing over 20 school boards across the state.
The emails from the FOIA request are available to view below.
Some of the documents were redacted before the newspaper received them.