GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. (WGHP) — The chair and vice chair of the Guilford County Board of Education have accused a local nonprofit of conducting illegal political activity within the county.

On Friday, Guilford County Board of Education Chair Deena Hayes and Vice Chair Winston McGregor sent a letter to several state and county officials calling for an investigation into “Take Back Our Schools – GCS,” a nonprofit focused on promoting certain policy changes within Guilford County Schools. The letter was addressed to N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, N.C. State Board of Elections Chair Damon Circosta and Guilford County Board of Elections Chair Jim Kimel.

Take Back Our Schools – GCS is a Guilford County nonprofit that opposes “division, hate and the CRT agenda” and teaching students or educators “that they are oppressors or oppressed. The group vets and endorses school board candidates that align with their values and shares posts on their Facebook page about schools in Guilford County, including news stories and political endorsements.

On its website, Take Back Our Schools lists itself as a 501c(4) nonprofit, which would be allowed to engage in certain political activities. However, Hayes and McGregor have accused the group of filing as a 501(c)(3), for which this kind of political activity is illegal.

The accusation

“We are compelled to request an immediate investigation into the activities of an organization called Take Back Our Schools (TBOS) that filed with the Secretary of State’s office in August of 2021 as a 501c(3) ‘charitable organization,'” Hayes and McGregor said in their letter.

Hayes and McGregor say Take Back Our Schools is “actively engaged in intensive and direct political activity that is illegal for a 501c(3) charitable organization.”

“They are endorsing candidates, raising funds, contributing to campaigns, and coordinating campaign strategy and fundraising,” Hayes and McGregor said. “They have been banned from Facebook twice in the last month for posting false information. 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.”

Their letter includes the nonprofit’s articles of incorporation, filed on Aug. 2, 2021. The document does not include the term “501(c)(3)” or “501(c)(4),” but it does show the group checked a box identifying the nonprofit as “a charitable or religious corporation,” meaning “the proposed nonprofit corporation intends to seek exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.”

On Monday, TBOS said on its Facebook page, “The clerical error has been corrected simply by refiling the corrected check mark. All is well otherwise, because the rest of our filings and website reflect we are indeed a 501c4.”

TBOS shared with FOX8 an application summary showing that the group filed its notice of intent to operate under section 501(c)(4) on July 27, 2021. In their response, TBOS says the group has operated as a 501(c)(4) “since our inception about a year ago.”

“Deena and Winston go on to allege we have engaged in illegal campaign activities and have been involved in harassment and outright lies,” the group said. “However, they did not cite even one example of any improper actions. They also allege that our activity will ‘damage such a critical electoral process’. So, this is about the current school board election and Deena and Winston appear to be unleashing the power of their positions and a budget that exceeds $1 Billion against a tiny non-profit that wants to help improve our schools.”

TBOS also doubled-down on its support of certain candidates for the Guilford County Board of Education.

“Has our group engaged in supporting candidates for the school board? Yes, we proudly support Linda Welborn, Tim Andrew, Crissy Pratt and Demetria Carter since we believe they will implement the improvements that are needed to improve academic performance and safety in our schools,” the group said.

It added however that a “majority of our effort and funds” go to educating the public on issues within the school system.

501(c)(3) versus 501(c)(4)

According to the IRS, 501c(3) nonprofits are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” That includes contributing to political campaigns, as well as verbal or written statements supporting or opposing candidates.

501c(4) organizations, however, are allowed to engage in “an unlimited amount of lobbying” so long as the lobbying relates to the group’s “exempt purpose.” They are also allowed to participate in “political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office” so long as “such intervention does not constitute the organization’s primary activity.”

TBOS under fire

TBOS faced criticism during the monthly Guilford County Schools Board of Education meeting on Oct. 11 as multiple members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community spoke up in honor of National Coming Out Day. Jennifer Ruppe, the executive director of Guilford Green Foundation, spoke specifically about TBOS, noting that she has spoken with teachers and students who are concerned about speaking out for fear of retaliation like bullying or even being fired. 

“Groups like Take Back Our Schools want to erase us. Make no mistake, Take Back Our Schools isn’t a group of local conservative parents, teachers and administrators that simply want to remove a few books from the school library. They are part of an organized national strategy to erode the rights of marginalized communities and scare us back into the closet,” Ruppe said during the school board meeting.

Ruppe accuses the group and groups like it of using false narratives about predatory LGBTQ people and “indoctrination,” and she says people within the school district believe that Take Back Our Schools is influencing how “individual administrators” make decisions.

“Some administrators find it easier to quietly take down an LGBTQ flyer, to ignore students’ request to start a GSA, or to turn a blind eye when a teacher says being gay is a mental illness,” she said. “Many students have shared stories of teachers and administrators who refuse to acknowledge their identities, refuse to use the name they go by and refuse to use the correct pronouns. Students have reported being outed by teachers, which led them to be bullied by their peers. All of these things are in direct contradiction to GCS policies.”