Tuesday, April 16, 2024

NHCS will seek additional legal counsel in wake of Vogel lawsuit

nhcs
NHCS will begin looking for additional legal counsel to handle EC matters. (Port City Daily/file photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Another discussion on New Hanover County Schools’ legal counsel led to a vote to hire an additional firm, aside from their current representative Vogel Law Firm, on Tuesday.

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

Board member Josie Barnhart initiated the vote to seek additional counsel for board’s exception children caseload, previously handled by Jonathan and Leigha Sink. The two attorneys split from and sued Vogel Law Firm in January over a payment dispute. 

Hugh McManus, Stephanie Walker and Stephanie Kraybill — all of which voted against hiring Vogel Law Firm last year — voted in favor of the move. Vogel’s backers Melissa Mason, Pete Wildeboer and Pat Bradford voted against.

Barnhart, who has been supportive of hiring Vogel, initially motioned to hire the Sinks’ law firm as the additional counsel. Kraybill asked if the board should consider other candidates. Barnhart replied she was open to naming multiple firms and expanded her motion to include the Sink Law Firm or Poyner Spruill Law Firm.

On Wednesday, Port City Daily asked Barnhart why she chose Sink Law Firm. 

“I cannot discuss closed session information, but my colleagues know my direct concerns as that was the appropriate setting to discuss,” Barnhart said. “It is my job to look out for the best interest of our district and it is my opinion in regards to specific EC matters needed support.”

Jonathan Vogel called the move “out of left field” and defended his firm’s ability to handle the district’s EC cases. At the meeting, he said he had spent the entire day working on a case and gets along great with the senior staff on EC matters. He then turned the issue back on the school board, questioning some members’ motives. 

“Be careful not to be fooled by misinformation that you may be getting from people who have an ulterior motive, people who may be disgruntled, may have been disloyal to this board or to our law firm, and people who may have a hidden, perhaps political, agenda,” Vogel said. 

PCD reached out to Vogel to ask who he was referring to but did not receive a response by press.

The attorney didn’t call out the Sinks or any board members by name on Tuesday. The Sinks are suing Vogel’s firm for breach of contract in Mecklenburg County small claims court. According to the complaint, Vogel Law Firm willfully withheld monies from the two employees in the amount of $7,779.25. 

According to the suit, the contract between the Sinks and Vogel stipulated the monthly income from representing the New Hanover County Board of Education be split 50/50. The complaint states October’s invoice to NHCS totalled $27,558.50. As agreed, the Sinks were owed $13,779.25, but they report only being paid $6,000. 

Bradford said to seek additional counsel would be artificially creating a crisis here. 

“I’ve got to say this — I believe this is a personal vendetta,” Bradford said. “I believe it’s just way off the grid for unhinged and I want no part of it.”

Kraybill has continued to criticize Vogel’s services to the district, claiming his “boutique” firm could not meet the needs of NHCS. She also said Vogel is too involved in board decisions and only disseminates information to a few board members; though she did not name anyone specifically, she said it was a right-wing majority, further revealing Vogel has a conservative bias.

“Between now and May we have an attorney that doesn’t cover our needs,” Kraybill said Tuesday.

Earlier in the discussion, the board took up a vote to release a request for proposals for the board’s legal counsel, as Vogel Law Firm’s contract is up in June. Vogel can reapply, though Wildeboer appointed an ad hoc committee — made up of Melissa Mason, Hugh McManus, and Josie Barnhart — to review applications if the district receives more than three. 

When voting to approve the committee and RFP request, Kraybill said: “This is the only way to get rid of him, yes.” Bradford was the only board member that dissented, though did not explain why. 

Professional conduct policy 

The board also voted on policy 7205, standards of professional conduct, at Tuesday’s meeting. The controversial policy has been in discussion for several months and Tuesday was the second time it had come before the board. It passed 4-3, McManus, Kraybill and Walker dissenting.

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

The policy was tailored as an easy-to-find, easy-to-understand synthesis of guidelines already encoded in the NHCS rulebook — except for one piece. 

One section of the policy, section Z, prohibits affirming beliefs in topics related to sexism and racism, such as one race or sex is inherently superior or one race or sex is responsible for actions committed in the past. The text also prevents statements promoting violent overthrow of the government or that the rule of law does not exist. 

The policy text is the exact language used in one provision of House Bill 187, introduced in February in the General Assembly and co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Iler (R-Brunswick). The bill only passed the House.

The language passed the school board’s policy committee last month, despite student pushback.

Superintendent Charles Foust has also spoken against it, calling it “offensive” to the district’s employees and said it would jeopardize teaching some state history standards. 

“The Constitution was not written for me,” Foust, who is Black, said. “I don’t want us to get into this, but the Constitution was not written with me in mind.”

One tenet of the policy’s section Z states educators should not teach that the United States “was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.” Per some people’s readings of the policy, this could limit discussions of racism and slavery, particularly that the Constitution was written by white men who owned slaves and the same rights were not afforded to Black people.

“What bothers me the most is a teacher is trying to meet the NCDPI and yet you’re criticizing him or her or they, talking about slavery, xenophobia — all of those kinds of things,” Kraybill said at the Tuesday meeting.

Barnhart said the policy was in response to several teachers that “should have taught a lesson differently.” 

“The whole premise of the policy is to outline professional expectation so that there is not a gray area of interpretation,” Barnhart said. 

However, Walker claimed the policy would create more gray areas and punish teachers based on unclear expectations. McManus echoed the concerns, saying it would further decrease morale. 

“This, from a certain group on our board, basically says we dare you to go out on a ledge. If you make a mistake and you step out on the ledge, we’re going to push you off,” McManus said.

Walker also highlighted section Z’s unclear path to inclusion into 7205. When the policy was first introduced, the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Christopher Barnes reported it was brought to staff by Vogel. However, Vogel denied this. 

Port City Daily’s public records requests for email correspondence between these two individuals, filed Oct. 18, has yet to be filled. 

On Wednesday, PCD asked Barnhart if she was the one to insert section Z into the policy. She did not directly answer the question, instead saying she worked with a subject matter expert and attorney prior to bringing it forth to the policy committee.

Barnhart also revealed she is now the former chairperson of the policy committee, while Mason, the board’s new vice-chair, has now taken the helm. PCD asked when she was removed and why. 

“The chair assigns committee assignments,” Barnhart said. “Policy is not my assignment anymore.”

Chair Wildeboer told PCD Barnhart has “done an excellent job” and “continues to do an outstanding job as our legislative chair and I fully support her.” PCD asked why she was being removed if she was doing well. Wildeboer responded: “She did an excellent job! There were many board members who have new responsibilities this year.” 

Foust still in charge 

Last week, Bradford made it known she would bring forward a vote to rescind Foust’s contract renewal. She told PCD she believed the school district “needs new direction.” 

Yet, her call for a vote did not come on Tuesday. PCD asked Bradford why and will update if she responds.

The board voted at its agenda review meeting on Jan. 30 to double the 20-minute time limit for discussion of the Career Readiness Academy at Mosley. After the discussion of Vogel’s contract this week, the board went into closed session that lasted past 9 p.m., when meetings are supposed to end per board policy. When the board returned, they voted to adjourn without discussion of Mosley or Foust’s contract. 

In December, senior staff blindsided the board and CRA students and parents by announcing the closure of the program at the conclusion of the 2023/2024 school year. However, Foust backtracked on that decision last week after significant pushback from the community, and even some local officials.


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