Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Board member attempts to dissolve Student Voice after butting heads about meeting participation

Schala Harper requesting to speak on Student Voice at the Jan. 9, 2024, NHC school board meeting. (Screenshot from meeting)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A virtual meeting of the New Hanover County school board amid Tuesday’s night’s storm turned contentious when a student asked to participate in an upcoming policy meeting.

READ MORE: Race, sex teaching guidelines inserted into proposed NHCS policy, language taken from stalled state bill

ALSO: Foust ‘appalled’ at proposed NHCS conduct policy, spars with board member over historical accuracy

As part of its regular agenda, the board of education hears from student ambassadors who are part of Student Voice. The idea for SV began in 2020 as a way to provide avenues for student feedback on district and board decisions; the program became official in October 2022.

Student Samin Bhan spoke to the board Tuesday via Zoom, asking to provide the committee with student feedback on policy 7205, standards of professional conduct. It has caused controversy among board members and school faculty; even the  superintendent spoke out against it in November. 

Josie Barnhart was against the student speaking at the policy committee and instead brought forth the suggestion to terminate the ambassadors’ governing policy. It would in effect eliminate official recognition by the board and the program’s involvement with district decision-makers. 

The discussion began when Bhan explained Student Voice had spent the last few weeks surveying students on the unpassed policy 7205. The policy was proposed in September as a collection of current NHCS policies in a comprehensive, easy-to-use guide. However, one section, taken from an unpassed bill in the North Carolina General Assembly, delves into how teachers instruct on racism, sexism and the founding of the United States. 

This part has been a concern of several board members and Superintendent Charles Foust, who criticized the burden the language would put on teachers and its implications for historical accuracy. 

“Our objective was to gather a comprehensive and stratified sample of student opinions regarding this policy as it directly impacts students’ education,” Bhan told the board members Tuesday.

He then asked if representatives from the Student Voice could share feedback from more than 60 student interviews at the Jan. 16 policy committee meeting. Board member Kraybill motioned to grant the request.

But Barnhart, also chair of the policy committee, voiced immediate opposition. She pointed out student input is not required on all committees and said it was inappropriate to allow the representatives to speak at the meeting.

“I will be voting no for this motion,” Barnhart said. “And I would hope that you take to heart some of the changes that need to be made in the policy so that we can effectively move forward together with this.” 

It was unclear whether she was referring to changes that need to be made in to policy 7205 or the Student Voice policy. After publication, Barnhart explained to Port City Daily that allowing the students — but not staff, parents, nor the community — to speak would be giving “preferential treatment” to one group.

The committee does receive input from a principal representative at every meeting, and though the opportunity is not there at the policy committee meetings, parents, staff and the community can provide input at the board’s regular meetings.

This is not Barnhart’s first public criticism of Student Voice. In June 2023, she said “kinks” still need to be ironed out in program, including students’ right to participate on all committees and the language surrounding tokenism and equity in the policy.

Board member Stephanie Walker said she didn’t understand the vehement opposition to allowing their policy meeting participation.

“I would never be scared, nervous or worried that students would come and give us feedback — that’s what they should be doing,” Walker said.

There was some discussion over the logistics of granting the request; board member Pat Bradford questioned if they could vote on the matter since it wasn’t listed as an action item. Board chair Pete Wildeboer asked about students missing school; Foust said the district could not provide them an excuse, but Bhan explained some student representatives do not have class during the morning, when the committee meetings typically take place.

Kraybill said the board would be violating the Student Voice policy by barring the students from speaking.

“It is written in our policy 4004 that the students will be allowed to give input,” Kraybill said. 

One tenet of policy 4004 states the district should “provide opportunities to include at least one high school student on all board committees, board advisory committees, and ad hoc committees.”

“To Ms. Barnhart’s feelings that she doesn’t agree with what’s in the policy, it really doesn’t matter because I don’t agree with what’s in a lot of the policies we have either, but it’s written and we have to do it,” Kraybill said. 

Barnhart then cut off Kraybill with a raised voice to make a substitute motion to “terminate policy 4004 at this time.”  

To PCD, Barnhart explained further.

“Given the fact that policy 4004 was being used to change the format of policy meeting, I made a motion to terminate that policy,” Barnhart said.

She said the format change would open the door to “completely overhaul policy discussions, which are driven by laws and fined tuned by a collaboration with leadership team and board members.”

“I have no problem hearing from students, however this step to allow them access in a space where others do not have access to speak in my opinion will create an environment where others will want the same opportunity afforded,” Barnhart said. “Simply put I believe the board needs to afford that opportunity to all and it is not feasible for that committee.”

The board member said she “should have done better,” but her point was it was unwise to include the students in the policy committee setting.

Teacher and Student Voice staff advisor Schala Harper weighed in on Tuesdy, saying the Student Voice team did not want policy 4004 to be on the chopping block. 

“They just want to be able to give you information that they’ve gathered, none of this is negative,” Harper said. “None of it is argumentative. It’s just informative.”

At another point in the meeting, Harper also asked the board: “What did we do?” to which Wildeboer said she could not interject.

Barnhart’s motion ultimately gained no second and died. 

Kraybill’s motion to allow the students to “interact” with board members at the policy committee passed 5-2, with Bradford and Barnhart dissenting.

“I am absolutely astonished and floored that one or more board members are saying, so that every student I hope is listening to this, don’t want to hear what you have to say,” McManus said. 

On Wednesday, Kraybill informed Port City Daily the students will be given 5 minutes to present on policy 7205. 

McManus and Kraybill also justified their vote to grant Bhan’s request by comparing it to the board’s decision to hold a public hearing on the closure of the Career Readiness Academy at Mosley. The district abruptly announced to parents in December that it would close at the end of the school year.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted to postpone discussion of the closure until after the hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 16. It also voted to remove the discussion regarding its legal counsel, Vogel Law Firm, which recently lost two members who are now suing the firm.

CATCH UP: ‘Partisan sour grapes’: NHCS to discuss Vogel contract again after two employees leave firm

[Editor’s Note: A prior version of this article misspelled Samin Bhan’s name. It has been corrected; PCD regrets the error.]

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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