Thursday, September 29, 2022

After alleging discrimination, harassment, and safety issues, NHCS ‘whistle blower’ got demotion, pay cut

Forest Hills Elementary, were the controversial ‘first come, first serve’ Spanish Immersion enrollment program took place. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Forest Hills Elementary, where the controversial ‘first come, first serve’ Spanish Immersion enrollment program took place. (Port City Daily photo / File)

WILMINGTON — A New Hanover County School (NHCS) employee who reported alleged racial discrimination, safety concerns, and a hostile workplace says her grievance was met with harassment and bullying from top administrators, followed by a demotion and salary reduction. According to internal documents, recordings of meetings, and transcripts of hearings, administrators repeatedly argued the employee had failed to meet her job expectations.

The situation took place at Forest Hills Elementary during the 2015-2016 school year when, under then-Principal Deborah Greenwood, the Spanish immersion program adopted a controversial ‘first-come, first-serve policy.’ The shift from the previous lottery system resulted in a stark racial imbalance, with ‘overwhelmingly white’ classes in a school where more than half the students were minorities.

Between the beginning of the school year in July 2015 and a final hearing before the Board of Education in April 2016, two different stories unfold.

According to letters and testimony from top administrators, the employee – Sherri Yelton – was overwhelmed by the demands of her position as a data manager. The administration maintained that Yelton failed to meet performance expectations despite several ‘action plans.’ When presented with her concerns about the school system, Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley questioned the “timing” of her grievance, which came after reprimands from Greenwood.

The district also claims that Yelton violated student record confidentiality by taking paperwork off-campus, a “fireable offense” — officials note that, by issuing Yelton a demotion, they were also giving her a second chance.

According to Yelton – and some of her co-workers – Forest Hills was a “chaotic” and “toxic” environment when she took the job there in 2015. Increased enrollment and over a dozen new employees led to difficulty managing students’ records, Yelton said, adding that she disputed Greenwood’s notes about her performance and never received adequate training (the school district stated the “training process” for data managers has not changed since 2015).

And, when Yelton filed a formal grievance, indicating numerous issues – including racial discrimination throughout the school – she said the environment grew increasing hostile. She said she was set up in a staged audit to make her performance appear poor and then ambushed with the audit results. She also said her attempts to go to the board were frustrated when administrators opened her private letter to board members. During her final appeal, she said instead of acting as neutral judges the board turned on her, siding with the attorney hired to make the case against her.

In the end, Yelton was demoted and reassigned to a secretarial role at Wilmington Early College High School. Her salary was cut by approximately $4,800 — from around $31,000 to around $26,200. NHCS maintains it abides by all state and federal laws on non-retaliation.

Meanwhile, three years later, new information about what happened at Forest Hills is still being revealed, including Markley’s recent statement that there were issues at the school at the time, concerns about racial inequality from the principal who started the immersion program, and Greenwood’s private email to Markley saying he had ‘thrown her under the bus’ and asking him to be honest.

Yelton also filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, but investigators found no evidence of retaliation by the school.

Forest Hills, July 2015

Sherri Yelton, current New Hanover County School employee. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Sherri Yelton, current New Hanover County School employee. (Port City Daily photo / File)

Yelton, now in her mid-50s, previously had a successful career before taking time off to raise her children. After graduating from Chapel Hill, she worked as an investigator for the DeKalb County District Attorney’s office in Georgia and then as a social worker in Charleston, specializing in child sex cases in both positions. She then moved to Wilmington and worked for the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts; she worked in the New Hanover County court system, eventually becoming the executive director of the Community Penalties Program. In 2013, Yelton returned to work as an administrative assistant at Mary C. Williams Elementary School in April of 2013.

Seeking a challenge, and more income, Yelton applied and got a job as a data manager at Forest Hills Elementary in the summer of 2015.

As Yelton would later tell the board during her final hearing, she had been advised by friends and coworkers against the move, telling her that Forest Hills was “evil or toxic” and that Principal Greenwood was unpleasant to work with. Still, Yelton took the job.

On her resume, Yelton indicated that she was proficient in PowerSchool, the software used by NHCS to manage student records. This would become a point of contention as the school pressed its case against her, arguing that Yelton had misrepresented her skill set. Yelton said she had been proficient at the software to the extent she had used it at her previous job, and assumed that – as with all new positions – there would be training.

Yelton said that there are at least 13 new teachers, as well as new staff members, many who did not know the procedures for filing ‘greensheets’ – the name for the form where student information, including confidential details, are recorded. Yelton said she never received a training manual – other employees would later testify in her hearing that there wasn’t one – and only a few days of training, including some off-site training that Greenwood declined to allow Yelton to go to. Yelton also apparently missed an ‘open house,’ where some basic information and introductions were provided, because she was working.

In testimony during one of Yelton’s appeals, Greenwood acknowledged the school was busier than usual, but denied there was “chaos.” Greenwood also acknowledged that she had been aware that Yelton had never been a data manager before, but said she expected her to perform better than she had. Yelton attempted to work extra hours to catch up, including many hours off the clock, but Greenwood ultimately ordered her to cap her time.

Not long after Yelton started, Greenwood put her on an ‘action plan.’ However, Yelton said she responded to Greenwood’s complaints – including faulty timecards that showed her as late when she had been on time – and didn’t consider them valid. In later hearings, the administration didn’t bring these issues up again.

Yelton said in the first few months the workplace was hostile. She said Greenwood discouraged camaraderie at work, was abrupt and sometimes harsh with staff. The assistant principal would later testify that while Forest Hills was not a “happy-go-lucky” workplace, there wasn’t a hostile atmosphere.

Memo of concern: Safety, hostile workplace, racial discrimination

Sherri Yelton’s memorandum of concern, filed in November of 2015. (Port City Daily photo / File)

On November 13, 2015, Yelton filed a ‘memorandum of concern,’ as she understood to be the school’s policy. The memo contains over a dozen concerns, including safety issues, staff treatment, and ‘diversity issues.’

The safety issues included unclear protocols for ‘shelter in place’ drills, students being dropped off unattended, and other issues created by Greenwood’s preference for using her cellphone (Yelton said Greenwood’s office phone would sometimes be set to ‘do not disturb,’ and would use text messages instead of a walkie-talkie.)

There were also specific incidents, including a student who was, according to Yelton, transferred without her knowledge and without medical records of potentially fatal allergies. Another incident involved a court-ordered injunction against a father, signed by Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening, barring him from contact with his two children except on alternating weekends. According to Yelton, Greenwood had an SRO read and interpret the court order and then allowed the father to eat lunch with his two children.

Yelton claimed that Forest Hills was a hostile workplace, stating that she – along with other employees and parents – had similar concerns about Greenwood’s behavior but that “everyone is afraid of retaliation.” Yelton as noted she was afraid of Greenwood firing her for bringing attention to the issues in her memo.

Lastly, Yelton noted that the school had “diversity issues,” including but not limited to the Spanish immersion program.

“The Spanish immersion classes seem to be primarily comprised of affluent white children. Many of these students are out of district while there is a long waiting list of students that live in our district who would love to have the opportunity to be a part of this program,” Yelton wrote.

“I don’t know what the criteria [is] for placing these students in the Immersion program. I was told that Ms. Greenwood selected the students for the Immersion program. I do know that race in these classes are disproportionate to the racial composition of our school body.”

In a recent interview, Yelton noted: “The most disturbing thing about the waiting list was not that out-of-district students were accepted into the program. It was the fact that African American children were placed ‘behind’ the white children who were on the list of accepted students despite the fact the African American children had applied before the white children.”

After filing the memo of concern, Yelton said her treatment at Forest Hills got worse. According to Yelton, Greenwood refused to communicate with her, and the PowerSchool staff stopped responding to her requests for help on records issues.

Response or ‘retaliation’?

Yelton met with Human Resources Director Dr. Susan Hahn to discuss her memo. According to Yelton – as well as a letter later sent by Markley – Hahn said only the safety issues were ‘grievable’ under school policy, although she could file a separate complaint to the board.

Yelton said she was incredulous at the time.

“What if someone started a fire, and I saw it, and I told you who started it,” Yelton told Port City Daily. “You mean to tell me you couldn’t look into it?”

Hahn told Yelton she would respond to her concerns within thirty days. When Yelton didn’t hear back from her she contacted Boardmember Jeannette Nichols, who is Yelton’s second cousin.

According to Yelton, Nichols told her to make copies of her memo of concern, seal them in envelopes marked ‘personal and confidential,’ address them to the board of education and in care of Board Secretary Tabitha Adams, and drop them off at the administration office.

Yelton did so, on Friday, January 18, and was surprised to get a call from Wayne Bullard, the board’s attorney.

Yelton described what happened next:

“I pulled over, I’ll never forget where I was, I was in the parking lot on Wrightsville. It was Wayne Bullard on the phone, calling me on my cell phone, and he told me’I just want to let you know that you broke protocol, you don’t get to contact the board, there’s policies and protocols.’ I kept saying ‘I don’t want to talk to you, you’re the board attorney, I don’t have representation,’” Yelton said.

Yelton said she then asked why Bullard had opened her mail. She said Bullard told her it had been marked ‘time sensitive’ and Markley had given it to him. Yelton said Bullard said the administration would not deliver mail to board members, telling her to try taking mail to their home addresses.

Later that month, Yelton and UNCW Professor Edgerton, who had been acting as her representative in the grievance process, met with Assistant Superintendent and HR head Dr. John Welmers and Markley. Yelton asked Markley to explain why Bullard had the letter, Markley explained that someone at the Central Office had marked the letter ‘time sensitive,’ and that the board secretary Adams was out for some time. With the holiday break approaching, Markley decided to open the letter to see if it was important. It was never clarified during the meeting who added the ‘time sensitive’ to the letters.

Markley apologized if the experience had made Yelton feel “weird” but said Bullard was just making sure that Yelton knew her letter had been received.

Yelton said she felt like Bullard had misrepresented the phone call to Markley, and – more importantly – felt frustrated that a confidential letter to the board had been intercepted, opened, and shown to other people.

“He was really intimidating, he tried to bully me because I filed a complaint — he opened it! And then in all those hearings I had, the board always said ‘you cannot discuss the personal phone call you had Bullard,” Yelton said.

Also during the meeting, Yelton defended her grievance, saying she felt like she was the only one ‘blowing the whistle’ on issues that had many employees intimidated into silence. Yelton said her grievance had nothing to do with Greenwood’s ‘letters of concern’ about her job performance.

(Audio: Sherri Yelton speaking about her situation at Forest Hills in early 2016. Dr. Tim Markley responds. The voice at the end is UNCW Professor Clyde Edgerton, Yelton’s advocate in the grievance process.)

“I feel like it’s been stacked against me since day one, but I didn’t file this for that. It just turned…I was frustrated at the lack of training and support, but this is from the heart. This is what I see, I felt, I saw. And I thought if I brought forward this, I’d be listened to. I don’t feel like I’ve been listened to. Nobody’s even responded at all. And I’m sitting here in front of you and I’m scared to death,” Yelton said.

Markley responded by questioning the ‘timing’ of her grievance.

“Let me ask a question. This is just . . . when I get a grievance, I look at it as part of it is the employee piece. There was an improvement plan put in place then a grievance comes in after that. Just — explain that timing on that to me,” Markley said.

Shortly after the meeting, Markley wrote Yelton a response to her concerns. Markley acknowledged there had been some safety issues, including “some discrepancy between what was in the court order and the interpretation by the SRO,” noting that the incident had been “reviewed by school administration and our in-house counsel.”

Markley noted that neither the hostile workplace or diversity issues fell under the grievance process. But Markley also focused on concerns about Yelton’s job performance and the backlog of student files at Forest Hills.

Audit or ambush?

Yelton was ultimately able to respond to an audit, performed on her workplace without her knowledge, but not before she was questioned about it by then-Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Yelton was ultimately able to respond to an audit, performed on her workplace without her knowledge, but not before she was questioned about it by then-Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday. (Port City Daily photo / File)

In January, as part of Yelton’s grievance process, Markley assigned Dr. Rick Holliday was assigned to replace Greenwood (who had resigned, effective the end of the school year) as Yelton’s supervisor.

The first time Yelton met with Holliday was in a one-on-one meeting on February 19. Unbeknownst to Yelton, Holliday had sent Nancy Braswell, NHCS system auditor, to Forest Hills, to investigate her office.

When she went into the meeting, Yelton said she had no idea what was in store. Without showing her the photos from the audit, Holliday launched into a review of Yelton’s job performance, questioning her about why her office was in disarray.

“That was horrible. It was an ambush, it was one of the worst days of my life,” Yelton told Port City Daily.

(Audio: Sherri Yelton’s meeting with former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday.)

“It was hard. I felt like I was put on trial and presented with evidence that I had no idea what he was talking about initially. He was hostile towards me. He, he just started going through this exhib—I mean this audit which I had no idea what it was or where it came from, demanding answers. And I tried to just sit and process everything because I had never seen this information that he was talking about. So, um, it was not a pleasant meeting. At all,” Yelton would later testify.

Holiday told Yelton he would tell Markley she had “not met the requirements of her action plan,” which would essentially lead to her being fired from the position.

On February 29, 2016, Yelton had a hearing to appeal her grievance. Just prior to that, she finally got to see Braswell’s evidence against her.

A half-shredded doctor’s note – something Yelton said she would never do – a messy desk and files scattered on top of a cabinet were all used as evidence against her. Yelton said her office never looked this way. In fact, Yelton responded to the photos and all of Braswell’s other audit claims, but only after her meeting with Holliday.

Yelton said she was deeply upset by the photos, saying they did not in any way look like the way she maintained her office. Yelton said she felt the audit had been staged. During a later hearing, Markley would staunchly deny that the evidence was manipulated.

Further troubling to Yelton was that Braswell’s report was used against her when she tried to move forward with concerns about issues at Forest Hills. During that hearing, Edgerton, who was her representative, questioned why “exhibits” or “evidence” about Yelton’s job performance were being included in her hearing, which was supposed to concern her grievance over safety issues.

In the end, the board announced that Yelton had “raised some legitimate concerns for her personal safety” and that, while those concerns had been addressed by additional training, the board believed it should have taken place in a more timely manner. And, although a former Forest Hills employee – who had been fired at Greenwood’s request – had shown up to testify that the school had a toxic environment, the board stated that Yelton had not proven her complaints of workplace hostility.

The board did not consider the racial discrimination alleged in Yelton’s complaint.

“I don’t, I felt all it was about was my job performance. I don’t—either it wasn’t grievable and none of my testimony or Mr. Edgerton’s testimony would be heard or considered, or it was considered a remedy, like the safety issues. So, I’m not saying the Board didn’t hear me, I just feel like they were, advised that I was not, that information would not be discussed or deliberated on,” Yelton said.

Student records

In the days leading up to the February meeting with Holliday, Yelton took a number of greensheets to process at a data manager workshop, a practice that appears to have been allowed for data managers.

When the school’s secretary called in sick, Yelton was required to take over. According to testimony she would later give, Yelton thought that since she would not have access to her regular office, she would leave the student records locked in her car. She also took several days off, on the advice of her doctor, due to the emotional and psychological stress resulting from the workplace environment.

Then, following her meeting with Holliday, Yelton received a letter from Markley suspending her with pay as the audit continued.

Since she was banned from returning to campus, she had Edgerton – who had been assisting her with her appeal process – return them; Edgerton kept the records at his house over a weekend until he could do so. As Markley would argue, confidential student records were in a third-party’s possession, without Yelton there, for some time.

During her final hearing, Yelton told the board – and the attorney hired to represent Markley against Yelton – that she thought that since Edgerton was her mentor it would be acceptable to have him return the documents. Edgerton also affirmed repeatedly that he did not look at the records while they were in his possession.

Pressed by Nick Sojka, Markley’s attorney, Edgerton elaborated, stating that – if Yelton was to be accused of misplacing papers, as she was in the audit, then she could defend herself by producing the greensheets. Edgerton also noted that the bag also contained Yelton’s own worksheets, which could demonstrate to the school how she was working on the files.

Taking the greensheets off of campus, and leaving them in Edgerton’s possession, remained an issue though. In part, it led to Markley banning Edgerton from campus, and sparking a years-long feud (and a federal complaint).

It also led to Markley sending out letters of concern to parents, alerting them there had been a potential breach of personal student information, but not identifying what employees were involved. Markley initially told the board that he had not revealed Edgerton’s name but, when pressed by Yelton’s attorney in her final hearing, Markley admitted he had told one parent Edgerton’s name.

Lastly, it led to Markley effectively firing Yelton from her current position.

In a March 28, 2016 letter, Markley suspended Yelton without pay for 10 days, following which she was to be reassigned to Wilmington Early College High School (WECHS). Markley wrote that Yelton’s “performance deficiencies are much worse than they appeared” in January and also called her mishandling of student records “egregious.”

Yelton was moved to a desk in the lobby at WECHS and her pay cut.

The final, seven-hour hearing

On April 27, 2016, Yelton had her final hearing to appeal her demotion and suspension without pay. At the time, Yelton said she had $6 in her account at the time but was represented by Wilmington attorney Jim Lea, who agreed to work pro bono.

During the hearing, Markley was represented by Nick Sojka. According to board attorney Wayne Bullard, this was necessary because the board’s counsel is intended to stay impartial during an appeal, so an outside attorney is hired to press the superintendent’s case against the employee that’s appealing.

According to Bullard, it’s confidential how many appeals Sojka worked on, although it appears he was retained in 2015. According to records provided by Bullard, Sojka’s firm — Williamson, Dean, Williamson, and Sojka — was paid $8,897.04 during the 2015-2016 school year (one of three outside law firms hired over the time period).

In the January meeting with Markley and Welmers, Welmers explained the district had retained counsel after Yelton wrote in her memo of concern that she was hiring her own legal counsel.

During that meeting, Yelton clarified that she had simply spoken to a friend who was a real estate attorney. According to NHCS policy, she was not allowed to rely on an attorney – only an advocate (e.g. Edgerton) – for the grievance process and did not have legal counsel until Lea agreed to represent her for the final appeal.

During that final hearing, the administration presented several witnesses against Yelton, including the interim data manager brought in to replace her at Forest Hills, the student information system supervisor, Greenwood, and her assistant principal, as well as Braswell, who had audited Yelton. Holliday apparently was available to testify but, when the hearing ran towards the seven-hour mark, the administration chose not to swear him in to testify.

Edgerton testified on Yelton’s behalf.

At the end of the hearing, Sojka described Yelton as someone with personal problems, who took the job for money but wasn’t able to perform. That, added to the breach of confidentiality, warranted termination, he said – adding that Markley had offered to give Yelton a second chance by allowing her to continue working for the district. He concluded by telling the board they had been served by a “wise and even merciful administration” in Yelton’s case.

Yelton said of the hearing: “It was utterly… they were against me. The questions the board asked, they were already mostly on the administration’s side.”

In response to Sojka’s characterization of her, Yelton said, “Of course I had problems. I was being harassed, bullied, and intimated for filing a complaint. I was also going through a painful separation from my husband of 23 years all while trying to learn my job. And who doesn’t want to better themselves with a position which pays more money? Isn’t that the
goal of most people seeking new employment?”

In Lea’s closing remarks he described Yelton as an intelligent and capable person who had walked into a “monstrous” environment, noting that issues under Greenwood were well known but that she had been protected. Lea called Yelton’s situation a “perfect storm” and, in the end, Yelton was “completely run over.”

The board voted unanimously to uphold Yelton’s demotion and pay cut.

Coming forward, making changes

Lea said that while the hearing continues to concern him, he’s optimistic about the fate of employees who face similar situations in the future.

“What we had was essentially a trial. And usually, with a trial, there’s a judge, and sometimes a jury, and the opposing attorney on the other side, and you feel like you have a shot — and the instance that we walked into, it was me as Sherri Yelton versus the world. It was us against the school board, the school board’s attorney … all the witnesses, who were all against us because they were under the administration, and the school board – the school board was just as much under the sway of the administration,” Lea said.

“But I think that’s changed,” Lea said. “I think the board’s changed, and I think stories like this may encourage them to do the right thing.”

Yelton, who still works for NHCS today, said she knows many fellow employees who are fearful of speaking up. She hopes her story can help change that.

“My story is just one of many. I personally know of other employees who tried to come forward about injustices and flaws within the school system. None of these employees were heard and they were ultimately fired, transferred, or demoted. It is my hope, that by coming forward, other employees and former employees will feel safe to share their stories and let the public know the truth,” Yelton said.

Editor’s note: Port City Daily contacted all board of education members and Dr. Tim Markley for comment on Monday, with the understanding the specific personnel matters are confidential. So far, no response has been received, but this article will be updated with any comment from the board or administration.

The district has since responded to several general questions, posed Monday, about the grievance process, including whether the level of training for data managers at Forest Hills has been increased, and whether the district has – or is considering – any policy to protect ‘whistleblowers.’

“Employees may file grievances under the grievance policy 6450 for matters affecting their employment. For all other matters, employees, as members of the public, may file parent/public complaints under policy 9510. The training process for data managers has not changed since 2015. Policy 1710 prevents retaliation for filing civil rights complaints.   For all other complaints, the district follows state and federal laws on non-retaliation,” according to NHCS.

Finally, it is Port City Daily’s editorial policy not to use anonymous sources. It is worth noting, however, that in researching this story we spoke to over a dozen current and former NHCS employees, all of whom declined to go on the record citing fear of retaliation against themselves or their loved ones. 

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

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