The chair and vice-chair of the Guilford County School Board have filed formal complaints against a local conservative group they say has been operating illegally.

On Oct. 21, school board members Deena Hayes and Winston McGregor sent letters to the Guilford County Board of Elections, the NC Secretary of State’s office, the state attorney general’s office and the NC Board of Elections, asking each entity to investigate the activities of Take Back Our Schools. They say that the group has been illegally participating in election activities.

As Triad City Beat has reported, Take Back Our Schools is a local conservative group loosely formed a few years ago by parents to oppose certain school board policies, but quickly gained traction during the pandemic as they rallied against mask mandates, vaccines and school closures. In more recent months, the group has been vocal about critical race theory and book bannings.

According to the letter, Hayes and McGregor allege that Take Back Our Schools has been engaging in election activities such as endorsing candidates, raising funds, contributing to campaigns and coordinating campaign strategy, which is illegal for a 501c(3) organization.

Since a year ago, Take Back Our Schools has been actively endorsing Guilford County School Board candidates Crissy Pratt (District 2), Linda Welborn (District 4), Tim Andrew (District 6) and Demetria Carter (At-large).

Take Back Our Schools’ candidates

McGregor is not up for re-election this year but Hayes is running unopposed for re-election in District 8.

“While we have endured harassment and outright lies about our schools, educators, students and district leaders, we cannot stand by and allow illegal activity to persist and damage such a critical electoral process,” the letter states. “We call on you to act immediately with all appropriate authority to end their illegal activities.”

And that’s where confusion kicks in.

The differences between a 501c(3) and 501c(4)

At the bottom of Take Back Our Schools’ website, they claim that they are a 501c(4) organization. However, their articles of incorporation filing with the state from Aug. 2, 2021 include a checked box and wording that suggests they are filed as a 501c(3).

At the bottom of Take Back Our Schools’ website they list that they are a 501c(4)

While both are nonprofit organizations that are tax exempt, there are a number of important key differences between 501c(3)s and 501c(4)s.

In this case, the argument being made by Hayes and McGregor is that a 501c(3) is not allowed to partake in any election or political activity.

As stated on the IRS website, 501c(3) organizations are charitable organizations that “may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”

501c(4) organizations, on the other hand, are what are known as “social welfare” organizations that are allowed to “engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.”

According to Eugene Parker, who filed to incorporate Take Back Our Schools, he accidentally checked the box that denotes the organization as a 501c(3) when he filed paperwork to the state more than a year ago.

“I incorrectly checked Box 2,” he said. “I didn’t realize the fine print.”

On Monday, Parker filled out an articles-of-correction document that he is filing with the Secretary of State’s office to correct his error. TCB was sent a copy of the document.

Parker also argued that even though the organization was incorrectly incorporated at the state level, Take Back Our Schools is recognized by the IRS at the federal level as a 501c(4).

“501c(3) and 501c(4) status is regulated by the federal government and not the state government,” he said. “The state has nothing to do with that. The error has no impact on our status. We have advertised ourselves as a 501c(4) since the beginning.”

Parker sent TCB a copy of the application summary that was sent to the IRS on July 27, 2021, to file Take Back Our Schools as a 501c(4). On the IRS website, it is noted that the “IRS is required to acknowledge that an organization’s notification has been submitted” and that the organization “can expect to receive an acknowledgement from the IRS within 60 days of submitting your notification.” However, Parker said that he never received any notice from the IRS that the application was accepted.

Additional research into the organization leaves more questions than answers.

A search of Take Back Our Schools on the IRS website doesn’t reveal much information. Besides the fact that the organization has filed two Form 990-N e-Postcards — which are used by nonprofits that make less than $50,000 — the listings don’t denote whether or not the organization is filed as a 501c(3) or 501c(4). A search of the organization in the master database for all of North Carolina’s nonprofit organizations doesn’t list Take Back Our Schools at all.

A screenshot of the available information for Take Back Our Schools on the IRS website.

Additionally, because the organization is a nonprofit, their tax returns, including all revenue and expenditures must be available to the public. But because the organization says that they make less than $50,000, full tax returns that are ordinarily available online do not exist. And that creates a sort of black box for Take Back Our Schools. As an organization that has repeatedly asked for transparency from the school board, including forcing the district to do audits, the lack of information around Take Back Our Schools’ structure and finances is concerning, McGregor and Hayes said. 

“The inaccuracies and the accusations they have made and used, we’ve been audited by the auditor’s office…. The school district was audited based on accusations that my company provides training to the district and I’m making so much money off the back of the district, which I’ve never done in 20 years, I never would do….” Hayes said. “Just the misinformation and the accusations that the superintendent’s hiding money and here, ‘Oh, we made a mistake.’”

Hayes is the founder and managing director of the Racial Equity Institute. The school district received a clean financial audit report in January.

“I just think it’s important for people to be aware,” McGregor said. “They’re engaged in what may be well-funded, we don’t know where the money comes from. We don’t know how much is from this community, from outside of it, nationally funded…. We think it’s okay to ask those questions.”

Take Back Our Schools’ state and national ties

While Take Back Our Schools has advertised themselves as a small, grassroots organization, the group has had some significant state backing in the last year.

According to their website and social media, in July, Take Back Our Schools launched a campaign kickoff and fundraiser at Starmount Country Club that featured Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson as a guest speaker.

After the event, Stephanie Mitchell, one of the primary organizers of Take Back Our Schools wrote a long note that was posted on the organization’s website.

“A huge thank you and a debt of gratitude to both to [sic] Lt. Governor Mark Robinson and Mrs. Yolanda Robinson for taking the time to join us in the mission of electing these BOE candidates,” she said. “We so appreciate all your hard work and encouragement to keep going.”

She also alluded to the fact that Take Back Our School’s mission is no longer one just tied to the local level.

“This is an exciting time in America and in North Carolina specifically,” Mitchell writes. “We are seeing more and more candidates coming together and running on common grounds. Joining forces and becoming teams. Currently the common issue is education.”

As reported by TCB in the past, the tactics used by the group are part of a larger, national playbook that includes using critical race theory as a scapegoat, attacking LGBTQ+ student rights and contesting books in schools. Their alignment with Robinson, who is known for his anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and push for more “transparency” in schools through book and course challenges, is an example. At the bottom of Take Back Our Schools’ website is a link to Robinson’s FACTS task force that was started last year to combat so-called indoctrination in schools.

Members of Take Back Our Schools protesting outside of the school board (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“There’s been a connected effort across the country around this playbook,” McGregor said. “It’s not just this little group of concerned parents who care about schools here. I’m not saying they’re not parents, and of course, they seemed to be concerned about all kinds of things, but it’s ok for us to push back and call it out on occasion.”

In July 2021, protests by Take Back Our Schools outside of the school board meetings garnered national attention after a right-wing conspiracist posted a snippet of footage on his Youtube page.

Gary S. Franchi Jr. of the Next News Network out of Illinois alleged that critical race theory was being pushed into schools and that members of Take Back Our Schools were kept out of the school board meeting. In reality, the school board meetings were public; they just had been live-streamed and members of the public were able to submit comments online.

“I’m calling out and standing up against what I often think is dangerous rhetoric,” McGregor said.

Now what?

McGregor said that so far, the complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

Andrea Leslie-Fite, the Guilford County attorney, responded to the complaints by stating that, “The Guilford County Board of Elections is not authorized to investigate nor enforce federal laws or regulations concerning not for profit corporations (Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3)) or social welfare organizations (Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(4)).”

Instead, she suggested they contact the state board of elections to “determine if the concerns noted may rise to a level of investigation warranted by NCSBE’s statutorily authorized powers.”

However, Lindsey Wakely, deputy general counsel for the NCBSE, responded by stating that they do “not enforce federal laws or regulations regarding a nonprofit organization’s tax exempt status.” Wakely suggested that they file a complaint with the IRS if they suspect Take Back Our Schools of not complying with federal tax laws. Additionally, Wakely suggested that they file a complaint form if they “believe the organization may have also violated North Carolina campaign finance laws.” McGregor said they are filling out that form and will send it soon.

“There’s a lot of kicking the can around,” McGregor said.

According to David Heinen, vice president for public policy and advocacy for the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits, it is unlikely that the IRS will get involved. Instead, Heinen said that the best argument that could be made against Take Back Our Schools is the simple fact that they are currently filed as a 501c(3) at the state level and they have been engaging in political activity, which is illegal.

“If I were trying to challenge what they were doing, I would probably do it on the basis that they are operating in a manner that is inconsistent with their current articles of incorporation because regardless of their tax exempt status, whether they are a 501c(3) or c(4), their articles of incorporation… the organization is bound to the language in that,” Heinen said. “[T]hey’ve got all the provisions to be a 501c(3).”

Heinen said that the issue isn’t really something that the Secretary of State’s office would review. Alternatively, he said that whoever was “most harmed” by Take Back Our Schools’ could attempt to take legal action.

In a text on Tuesday, McGregor said that they “will consider all appropriate options including the full range of legal ones.”

Heinen also said that more realistically, the reputational harm of the missteps taken by Take Back Our Schools might be the biggest outcome.

With that, McGregor agrees.

“I hope the voters come back to the place where they want reasonable people serving on the board of ed, who can work together,” she said. “…It’s up to us as individuals to raise and elevate the exercise of politics. And if reasonable people…don’t voice that, then we just leave the playing field to the extremists and they never get called onto a reasonable level of play.”

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