NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The conversation over a working definition of “equity” that has consumed numerous hours of New Hanover County school board meetings has reached what some consider its inevitable conclusion.
At the board of education’s agenda review meeting on Tuesday, one board member said she would like to discuss disbanding the district’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee at the next regular meeting.
“I think we need to analyze the strategic goals, as well as the progress that the committee has made and consider dissolving the committee,” board member Melissa Mason said.
The EDI discussion at Tuesday’s agenda review was for information purposes to provide an update on the “status of the district’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Department.” Per a new board directive, information items are heard at agenda review meetings, not regular meetings.
Mason claimed the board voted 4:3 at the last agenda review to place discussion of the committee on the December agenda. Board chair Pete Wildeboer said he did not recall that agreement, nor did board member Josie Barnhart or administrative assistant Crystal Buie, who keeps the board’s minutes, when he asked both women.
Since June, the board has been trying to pin down how the district should promote equity, generally set apart from equality in that it accounts for imbalances in resources and abilities. The board had a roundabout work session on the topic, questioning the purpose of the equity committee and EDI chief officer position.
A major conundrum, brought forth by Barnhart, has been whether district staff are implementing the right equitable strategies, particularly around student behavior, despite data showing disparities in the district.
For example, New Hanover County Schools is the only North Carolina school district under federal sanction for its disproportionate rate of suspensions of Black students. In May, it was revealed Black students are suspended six times more than their white peers, and Black disabled students are suspended 4.5 times more.
Federal sanctions kick in when disproportionality for any demographic reaches 3:1, and as a result, districts must direct 15% of federal funding toward addressing the problem.
The data showed that 56% of offenses resulting in suspension are what the federal Office of Civil Rights refers to as subjective discipline, including disrespect, defiance, inappropriate behavior and disruption. These violations are often influenced by different factors like culture differences, upbringing, and trauma responses.
Board member Hugh McManus pointed out the committee advocates for more than racial equity.
“It deals with exceptional children; it deals with handicap, severe,” McManus said. “It deals with so much more — you’re trying to make it a Black and white issue.”
Racial fairness isn’t the only area NHCS has struggled; it must fund athletic field improvements stemming from a Title IX violation, parents have reported hurdles in developing their exceptional children’s individualized education plans, and it received blowback after restricting transgender middle schoolers from participating on the sport teams aligning with their gender identity.
Mason, who until now has remained reserved in her statements on the committee and district office position, has been an advocate for the deaf community, pushing for interpreters to be present at meetings.
She did not respond to PCD’s request for her thoughts on disbanding the committee.
McManus and fellow board member Stephanie Walker and Stephanie Kraybill were indignant at Mason’s suggestion of a possible dissolution. McManus reminded the board that the county commissioners, who provide funding to the district, prioritize equitable opportunities as part of the county’s vision.
“We’re gonna do away with those words because you don’t like the words, but the county commissioners have kept them. That doesn’t bode well with anyone with average intelligence,” McManus said during the meeting.
Walker pointed out members of the EDI committee — made up of district educators and community members— have not been notified or asked their thoughts on getting rid of the committee, an omission she said was “rude.”
Malcomb Johnson, chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer, questioned what he should tell them at the next committee meeting on Dec. 4. Mason said she would discuss with him a plan of action.
Since the committee’s creation in 2019 and Johnson’s position in 2022, student voice has become part of regular meeting agendas and student equity teams have been established across the district. They have also accomplished the implementation of bilingual staff in the communication and outreach division, along with the hiring of more bilingual staff across the district and a Spanish heritage course addition for high schoolers. Minutes from meetings show a focus on initiatives like recruiting and retaining more diverse staff, training in implicit biases, and improving the achievement gap between different demographics.
Earlier this year, McManus told Port City Daily the committee serves as a channel where people feel they can openly share their issues and suggestions.
“[It is] not a threat to anyone,” McManus said.
Though, at the Tuesday meeting, Wildeboer said neighboring Pender and Brunswick counties do not have an EDI committee. In fact, such committees seem to be rare across North Carolina; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a community equity advisory committee. Durham County Schools has an equity affairs office and an LGBTQIA+ task force.
Some school districts, though without a dedicated committee, have committed to EDI efforts in their strategic plan, as NHCS has. McManus and Wildeboer remarked Tuesday the plan would need to be amended if the committee was eliminated.
Equity, diversity and inclusion are one of NHCS’ six strategic goals for its 2022-2027 plan. The EDI committee centers on one task: building out a system-wide shared language definition of “equity.” The plan does call for an expansion of the EDI team, including the creation of staff equity teams, along with hiring a student equity and engagement coordinator, and family and community engagement coordinator.
On Tuesday, McManus said he has tried to compromise with two conservative board members to keep the essence of equity embedded in policy, maybe with different wording, or reworking the goals of the EDI committee, to no avail. He reminded the board the four newly elected Republicans— Wildeboer, Bradford, Barnhart and Mason — campaigned on this mission.
“This has been in the making during all of that time. It’s not going to change. They’re not going to change their vote,” McManus said.
Walker echoed his thoughts, stating her fellow board members’ actions are “damaging our school district.”
“Politics is dictating what we do,” Walker said.