Bulloch County Board of Education member Maurice Hill rejects on legal grounds the board’s recent procedural changes requiring members to turn in their mobile phones during meetings and prohibiting members from participating by phone, his attorney said earlier this week.
In a phone call Monday, Francys Johnson identified himself as Hill’s attorney, and Hill later confirmed that Johnson is representing him. They have contacted the school board’s attorneys and are seeking to have the policies modified, Johnson said. He spoke first of the new requirement that board members place their phones, iPads and similar electronic devices in a container entrusted to a staff member before the start of every meeting.
“That’s not legal. We’ll contest that policy and have the board modify that policy,” Johnson said. “Now, they can ask folks to silence their phones, but they can’t require people to surrender their phones. It’s a public meeting.”
The board probably can make sure that members’ devices are not carried into the closed, or “executive” sessions, “but that can only apply in executive session,” he added.
The changes to meeting procedures were adopted by a majority of the eight Board of Education members, who were all present at the May 10 meeting. Hill, who represents District 8, voted against both rule changes. Glennera Martin, of District 5, joined him in voting against the motion to prohibit members from participating in votes or discussions by phone when they are not physically present.
Johnson said his message to the board’s attorneys was to urge the board to “come together for the best interests of the citizens of Bulloch County, particularly the students, who have to have a governing board that functions in their best interests, and not just the superintendent’s.”
He called the procedural changes part of a “backlash” against Hill for speaking out on behalf of the community he represents and an attempt to penalize the community itself.
“Of course the school board cannot ask the community to get involved and then when they get involved they seek to penalize, punish the community for speaking out,” Johnson said.
Johnson is also representing Langston Chapel Middle School Principal Dr. Evelyn Gamble-Hilton in contesting her reassignment by Superintendent Charles Wilson to fill an assistant principal vacancy at Southeast Bulloch High School.
Besides being an attorney, Johnson is a former Georgia NAACP state president. He helped lead a press conference and addressed the board at its April 26 meeting when Gamble-Hilton’s supporters came to protest her transfer and reduction in rank.
At that meeting, Hill moved to intervene in the administrative decision, and Martin, who attended by phone while recovering from an injury, seconded his motion. But the other members present, by a 5-2 vote, tabled the motion to intervene. Hill and Martin, like Gamble-Hilton, are African-American.
Two weeks later, at the May 10 meeting, District 4 board member Steve Hein introduced the motion to keep members’ phones and similar devices out of their hands during the open session as well as the closed portions of meetings. He also made the motion barring absent board members from voting and taking part in discussions by phone.
‘Confident’ of change
But phone participation is allowed by law, Johnson said.
“So we think that somebody didn’t consult legal before they put these policies on the table,” Johnson said. “I think that this sort of response to the community is not very well thought out. I’m confident that when the school board’s attorneys look at the challenges that we have, they will make some modifications to these policies.”
In clarification of a previous report: The Statesboro Herald’s May 13 story stated that Board of Education members placed their electronic devices in a large envelope during the May 10 meeting after the vote on the phone policy. That was true of other members, but Hill kept his phone, as confirmed from the school system’s online video of the meeting.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.