Monday, February 26, 2024

New Hanover School Board Chair responds to questions about independent investigation

(Port City Daily photo/Courtesy New Hanover County Board of Elections and New Hanover Board of Education)

WILMINGTON — After announcing that the board had selected the Brooks, Pierce law firm to conduct an independent investigation, questions remained, including what the investigation will cover, if it will conflict with the current SBI investigation, who will pay for it, and how – if at all – the results will be released to the public.

Related: New Hanover County School Board hires Greensboro-based attorney to conduct independent investigation

Port City Daily submitted four main questions to the New Hanover County Board of Education, as well as several members of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners – including Chairman Jonathan Barfield – who have stated they will continue to “work closely” with the board. In a statement early Thursday morning, Barfield released a statement:

“I am glad the Board of Education made the decision to conduct an independent investigation into the handling of past personnel allegations. This is an incredibly important issue and one that the Board of Commissioners feels strongly should be thoroughly investigated. Our children must feel safe, valued and heard at all times, especially in our schools. My fellow Commissioners and I will remain engaged in this issue and work closely with the Board of Education to ensure the right plans and practices are in place to keep our children secure.”

Port City Daily’s questions included what the scope of the investigation would be, and whether it would be limited to claims made by Michael Early Kelly related to a specific 2006 incident, or whether it would also include the handling of former student Sarah Johnson’s Title IX violation allegations, the behavior of Nicholas Oates, the controversial Spanish immersion program at Forest Hills Elementary, and other allegations.

Other questions included how the investigation will be funded, which entity (i.e the district, the school board, the county, etc.) would be the custodian of the final report, and how that report would be released to the public.
A final question addressed whether the State Bureau of Investigation or the Attorney General’s office had expressed concern that an investigation by the school district might conflict with active criminal investigations into the school.

Board’s response

Board of Education Chair Lisa Estep noted that multiple requests for clarification had been received and issued the following statement on behalf of the board (no other board members responded to request for comment):

“The purpose of the independent investigation is to look at our history for the purpose of improving how we, as the Board of Education, serve our constituents well, particularly in the area of personnel practices and policies, student safety, federal compliance, and internal investigations. We spoke to a number of attorneys and also sought the advice of the NCSBA legal counsel before making our decision.

The exact scope of the review will be defined between the law firm and the board at a meeting next week, and may be modified over time as things arise. The law firm intends to work with any outside investigators, including particularly the investigation being conducted by the State Bureau of Investigation, and will cooperate fully so as to avoid any interference or concern. Like all of our legal services and policy efforts, the funding will be local current expense funds. We welcome this opportunity to look at how to move this district forward in a way that every student and constituent has confidence that we are meeting their needs fairly and fully.”

As the scope of the investigation is not yet known, Estep’s release understandably did not address a potential timeline.

Estep offered a clarification that the contract with the Brooks, Pierce law firm would be with the board of education, implying that the decision on if and how to release that results of the investigation would be up to the board.

(Editor’s note: Estep did not respond directly to questions about making those results public; this article will be updated with any comment on that issue.)

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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