Tuesday, April 16, 2024

New Hanover County school board restructures its leadership, hopes for less-rocky 2022

New Hanover County Board of Education members (left to right): Vice chair Stephanie Walker, former vice chair Nelson Beaulieu, former chair Stefanie Adams, Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust and chair Stephanie Kraybill. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Stefanie Adams passed the gavel to her fellow board member Stephanie Kraybill Tuesday night, transferring to her the power of calculating agendas, managing periodically chaotic audiences and keeping the business of the school district in check.

First sworn into the board a year ago, Kraybill now helms the dais after a 4-3 vote. She was nominated by the former chair, Adams.

Prior to her appointment, board member Judy Justice made a speedy yet unsuccessful motion to elect her comrade Stephanie Walker to the position. When they pursued the roll call, Walker received only a “yes” from Justice and herself.

Board member Pete Wildeboer did not cast a vote for either of the candidates and made no nominations himself.

“I was really divided. I’ll be honest,” he said on a call Thursday. “They both have strengths, but I really thought we had other options on the board that would have given us better leadership.”

He declined to comment on who in particular he preferred, noting it was after the fact, but said others at the dais with stronger education backgrounds could have served. Asked directly, he acknowledged he was an option. (He and board member Hugh McManus, both former principals, possess the greatest K-12 experience.)

“I really think that we need to have a balanced voice in a leadership role,” Wildeboer added. “And, you know, I was hoping that someone else would be nominated and might step up.”

Walker, nominated by McManus, unanimously was assigned the role of vice chair in a subsequent vote.

Kraybill ( R) and Walker (D) campaigned the same year, and both were elected with the highest totals, collecting around 17% of the votes each.

“I’m happy to be in leadership,” Walker said in an interview. “I’m not a power-hungry person. I want to do, obviously, what’s best for the board. But being in leadership’s going to be helpful. And I’m excited to see what we do together.”

Walker succeeds Nelson Beaulieu, who is seeking re-election in 2022 but did not strive to reclaim the vice-chair position. Adams made known to the board she was not interested in the chair position again either. She even joked Tuesday night she was most excited about the appointments of all the items on the agenda.

It’s been a grueling year for the board and its constituents, and in recent months Adams has grown stern with the gavel and not been shy about directing deputies to remove out-of-order attendees. Since the start of the pandemic, passionate debates emerged about reopening schools. Now mask mandating is the overriding issue. Concerns arose over what students are learning in the classroom as it relates to race and white privilege. After the district contracted with a “change management and consulting firm” on its equity efforts, the board faced backlash.

Kraybill indicated she believes she can help redirect focus back to the students instead of upheaval at meetings, lead in the forthcoming work and support the superintendent.

“I would love it if our community attendees would be a little more cognizant of our work and recognize the fact that the meeting is for us to conduct school system business and not for them to run our meeting and, sort of, maybe even sometimes hijack our meeting,” Kraybill told Port City Daily.

What often draws large crowds to the meetings is the monthly public comment opportunity. Kraybill has been a strong proponent of organizing forums to sit down with the public. During the traditional call to the audience, speakers are limited by time, and board members are not to engage in back-and-forth.

“That is frustrating, when all you can do is just speak your mind and then the board members just look back at you,” she said. “We can nod, we can shake our head, but it’s not the same.”

Walker also said she wants to work on communication to restore trust with the community. She believes there is room for improvement at the immediate board and district level as well.

No forums have been scheduled yet, but Kraybill said, with a now fully staffed communications department, the resources are there to get it done. The family communications committee, which she chairs, is ironing out details.

“We just need to have more opportunities for our community and our parents to be heard in a meaningful way,” she said.

Throughout her tenure, Kraybill has proven she is policy-driven. She once led the defense to keep the name of a local coach off a field, interpreting a policy to state facilities shouldn’t be named after people. Once she sported a rainbow mask as she voted to allow middle schoolers to participate on the sports team of the gender they identify with, but she still cautioned against waiving further consideration of what she had supported, citing policy.

She said she wants the board to stay focused on the agenda items and the emergent needs of the school system at any given time, but won’t implement any drastic changes.

“This isn’t like a presidential election, where you’re changing from one party to the other,” she said. “This is basically just somebody else sitting in the middle seat and working with the superintendent and the other board members.”

Though she ran as a Republican, Kraybill told Port City Daily upon her election she holds values from both parties. In November, she resisted a proposed repeal of the mask mandate. About three weeks later, this past Tuesday, she agreed to move to an optional policy, effective immediately. In hindsight, she admitted she wished she had advocated for a later start date to give schools more heads up to get procedures in order.

Asked what personally caused her to swing the other direction so soon, giving Wildeboer and Beaulieu one of the two votes they needed to drop the mandate, she said she thought it was a good time but didn’t give a substantial reason. Kraybill said she is still anxious about the upcoming holidays but recognizes time has passed since Thanksgiving without a significant spike, and she didn’t want to the board to be “locked into” a metric. The county’s health and human services previously stated a desire to reach a 5% positivity rate, then almost didn’t follow through with its repeal in late November after the metric was met.

“At some point, we’re going to have to learn to live with this virus because it’s not going away,” Kraybill said. “We’re just going to have to get our Covid shots, just like we get our flu shots, keep practicing the same good hygiene that we have really learned to practice during Covid.”

Kraybill said she intends to lead the board based on the district’s strategic plan, once it is fully developed and approved. A strategic plan survey is open through Dec. 31 for the public to choose certain priorities they wish to see the board address. This is the first of five phases to develop the plan, a six- to seven-month process.

The emerging priorities, at this time, include academic performance, student safety, supporting teachers and staff and giving them the tools they need to assist students, engaging families, partnering with the community, and equity and inclusion.

The prior strategic plan, which covered 2016 to 2020, has rarely been cited. Walker acknowledged the board didn’t refer to the old plan.

“I believe that using the strategic plan as a roadmap is going to help us kind of put everything through the lens of what’s important to us,” Walker said.

Send news tips and comments to alexandria@localdailymedia.com

Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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