By Richard Sullins |

With only days remaining before the May primary, Republican Lee County Board of Education candidate Kenna Wilson has filed a public records request for all email records pertaining to Patrick Kelly, a sitting Democratic board member who is not up for election this year.

Wilson’s expansive request includes “historical emails and/or other electronic communications generated since he became a seated board member. I also asked for any emails and other electronic communications generated prior to his election to the school board, including those generated when Mr. Kelly was working on the Lee County High School campus as a College and Career Promise Counselor. This would include the time he was campaigning,” she said in a statement to The Rant.

Wilson’s request could potentially include thousands of emails that were either sent or received by Kelly, as well as others that mentioned him. She said while she understands her request is broad, she is looking for patterns that will point to what she thinks are hidden problems in the school system, and said she believes Kelly could be at the center of them.

“As a candidate, I believe the patterns found in the governance, performance data, and operations tell a bigger story about Lee County Schools. The big picture in Lee County Schools has often been obscured by public relation efforts focused on convincing the community ‘all is well’ when the patterns over time tell us all is not well for all students,” she said.

Four Republicans are running in the May 17 primary for three spots on the November ballot.

Kelly will not be up for election again until 2024. He was first elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2020.

Although she was vague about what she hopes to find in the emails, Wilson was candid about her reasons for seeking them.

“Patrick Kelly is not up for re-election but based on my own experiences with Mr. Kelly during my role as a principal for Lee County Schools, I know the division he brings to the school board,” she said. “Parents, educators, and community members are done with the division. As a candidate who hopes to bring honesty and openness to the board if elected, I want to do as much research as I can regarding current issues related to this board.”

This is not Wilson’s first public records request with Lee County Schools. She acknowledged that she had previously filed another relating to initiatives, spending, and budget matters.

Wilson said she understands it may take some time to comply with her request. With the potential for thousands of email records to be involved, each of those records will have to be identified by information technology staff at the Lee County Schools district office. Once identified, each will then have to be reviewed for content to ensure that it can be released under provisions of the North Carolina Public Records Act (Chapter 132 of the General Statutes). Wilson said she’s willing to pay for costs associated with the search “if the cost of copies becomes burdensome.”

There are no separate regulations for how long an email is required to be retained by public agencies. As with paper records, the rules about what has to be preserved, and for how long, depend on what is contained within the record. In some cases, emails do not have to be preserved at all, such as broad announcements to all staff or those coming from listservs. Some state records, though, must be preserved for 10 years or more, again depending on their content.

In some cases where emails created by board members or employees of Lee County Schools concern personnel issues or individual students, it would be necessary for them to be reviewed by the school board’s attorney, Stephen Rawson of the Raleigh firm Tharrington Smith. If so, Mr. Rawson’s rate for work done on behalf of the board is $235 per hour.

Wilson believes her request for Kelly’s emails is a first step in restoring trust in the school board.

“He is exactly the board member who one would expect to provide a window into the issues plaguing the functioning of our school board. Knowing how Mr. Kelly, other board members, and our superintendent have addressed several issues over the years is important,” she said. “Trust in our board is gone for many. The only way to regain trust is to ask some tough questions and for district leadership to be willing to answer those questions. I believe the information I am requesting will provide insight into the governance of the school board.”

Kelly faced a separate move against him by a different Republican candidate in recent weeks. Alan Rummel, who is also vying for one of the four spots on the November ballot, initiated an ethics complaint asking for an investigation into Kelly over a heated exchange between the two during a committee meeting of the board. That request failed to get the votes necessary to move forward.

For his part, Kelly said he intends to continue his work as a board member.

“As I always have been, I remain focused on how Lee County Schools can best meet the needs of students and parents and provide opportunities for teachers and staff,” he said. “Important issues face the school board. I will continue to encourage a cooperative spirit, undistracted by partisan attacks so that we can build on Lee County Schools’ great successes together.”

Early voting for the primary ended on Saturday. Election Day is Tuesday.