GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — The chair and vice-chair of the Guilford County Board of Education have filed an official complaint with the State Board of Elections against Take Back Our Schools, a nonprofit that has endorsed and campaigned for school board candidates, alleging campaign finance violations. 

The update comes less than two weeks after Deena Hayes-Green and Winston McGregor released letters on Oct. 21 calling on the North Carolina attorney general and the secretary of state to look into the nonprofit, saying that the group was misrepresenting themselves as a 501(c)(4) when they had filed as a 501(c)(3).

501(c)(3) groups cannot participate in political activities. 501(c)4 organizations can do political work, as long as it is less than half of their overall actions and they do not directly contribute to the campaigns of politicians. 

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, and said that the group has operated as a 501(c)(4) “since our inception about a year ago.”

The group also said that they were well within their legal limits when it came to their political activities. TBOS says they primarily provide legal fees for parents who have been “damaged” by Guilford County Schools and education for parents. 

Hayes insisted the call for an investigation was about transparency and not an attempt to silence the group, which has repeatedly questioned why the school board would focus on a “tiny non-profit” rather than fix what they see as issues within GCS. 

In the new complaint, signed on Nov. 3 and filed with the State Board of Elections, Hayes-Greene and McGregor still allege that the group is filed as a 501(c)(3) and operating illegally by endorsing political candidates. Take Back Our Schools addressed this, saying that there was a filing error that has since been remedied and that the group has been operating properly as a 501(c)(4).

The complaint from Greene and McGregor adds that, even if TBOS is a 501(c)(4), they believe that the group is still operating outside of the bounds of campaign finance law.

“In various materials, TBOS has held itself out as a 501(c)(4) organization. If, and to the extent that the organization has attempted to conduct itself in accordance with section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, then in such instance, TBOS has operated in violation of applicable campaign finance laws and reporting obligations. TBOS has failed to register as a political committee (NCGS 163-278.7) and therefore its receipts and expenditures remain unreported (NCGS 163-278.8, NCGS 163-278.9, and NCGS 163-278.11). In the alternative, if TBOS contends that it has made independent expenditures in support of candidates, then such expenditures are also unreported and thus in violation of other reporting provisions of Chapter 163 (NCGS 163-278.12) (Exhibit 2, 3, and 4).

“Unless TBOS is determined to be a political committee (unregistered), then such expenditures as have been made for the purpose of defraying candidate expenses (Exhibit 2) would constitute illegal corporate contributions. All expenditures by TBOS in coordination with any candidate would constitute corporate contributions in violation of NCGS 163-278.15 and NCGS 163-278.19.

“In addition, TBOS has solicited funds and expended funds in opposition to the Guilford County School Bond Referendum appearing on the May 17, 2022, ballot and thus has become a referendum committee, required pursuant to NCGS 163-278.9A to register and report with the Guilford County Board of Elections (Exhibit 5).

“In the course of its existence, TBOS has failed to register and report as a political committee required pursuant to NCGS 163-278.8, NCGS 163-278.9, and NCGS 163-278.11, failed to file independent expenditure reports as required by NCGS 163-278.12, and has failed to register and report as a referendum committee pursuant to NCGS 163-278.9A.”

From the filed complaint by Deena Hayes and Winston McGregor

Take Back Our Schools responds

TBOS has said that the state paperwork where they filled out a paper for a 501(c)(3) was done in error and the mistake has been remedied, maintaining that they are operating legally. In response to the filing of the complaint, Gene Parker released a statement on behalf of Take Back Our Schools that read in part:

“I acknowledged making a mistake in our original filing with the NC Secretary of State. The mistake was in not reading the fine print on the state’s definition of a charitable or religious corporation. This is item #2 which I checked and should not have. Thus, I filed the proper ‘Articles of Correction’ form with the NC Secretary of State on Oct 22d [sic] (when the issue first surfaced). As you can see, I clearly acknowledge that I checked box #2 when it should have been left blank and requested that the box be unchecked. With this correction we are in full compliance with all NC laws and regulations.

“For clarity, we have always considered ourselves a 501(c)4 and filed the proper paperwork with the US IRS to establish this status. We have advertised ourselves as a 501(c)4 in all our written communications including on social media as Deena, Winston and the lawyer acknowledge. Additionally we have filed the proper annual tax filings as a 501(c)4.  

“Frankly I do not understand all the legal mumble jumble about our alleged violation of campaign laws.”

Statement from Gene Parker, treasurer and incorporating officer of Take Back Our Schools

According to the IRS website, Take Back Our Schools’ tax filings notes that they have under $50,000 in holdings, which means their tax forms are not publically available.

Their social media activity and website are heavily focused on their endorsed school board candidates, with no information on the legal or educational services that they say they provide to parents. Gene Parker says this is within the legal bounds of a 501(c)(4), which allows for political endorsements and campaigning as long as it doesn’t encompass more than 49% of their total activities as a non-profit.

Part of a national movement

Groups like Take Back Our Schools have been cropping up all over the country: conservative-leaning groups that represent themselves as concerned parents, storming school board meetings with allegations that children are being taught Critical Race Theory or being forced to read books with explicit sex in them. They often target books that have LGBTQ+ or racial themes in them that are in school libraries, whether or not they’re being taught in classrooms.

Hayes says that school board candidate Demetria Carter has made these claims at candidate forums in Greensboro and that the claims are false.

Gene Parker, treasurer for TBOS, also alleged that there is “pornography” in elementary school libraries in Guilford County Schools, but he did not provide specifics when asked. 

The executive director of Guilford Green Foundation and LGBTQ Center in Greensboro, spoke out against their activities during an October school board meeting, with educators, students and GCS staff joining her to ask the school board to do something about both the group and the environment within GCS towards LGBTQ students and staff.

The Board of Elections has not yet confirmed if they will investigate the allegations in the formal complaint.