Tuesday, July 23, 2024

NHCS sends mixed signals on Holliday stadium renaming, possibly fearing legal ramifications [Free read]

The football stadium at E.A. Laney High School, named for Dr. Rick Holliday. (Port City Daily photo / File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Next week, the school board will discuss the issue of the E.A. Laney High School football stadium currently named for former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday. It remains to be seen if the board’s attorney will attempt to freeze any attempts at renaming for a year, citing an interpretation of school policy that may be motivated by the ongoing litigation against the district.

The discussion has been prompted by a petition to strip Holliday’s name from the Laney football stadium; created by former Laney student Chris Sutton, the petition currently has nearly four thousand signatures.

Related: Why is there a stadium named after former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Hollday?

After initially signaling the issue could be put on the board’s agenda two weeks ago, Board Chairwoman Lisa Estep told Sutton that the board policy on facility naming required officials to wait a year from the date of Holliday’s retirement before considering a renaming; Estep’s response seemed an attempt to close out the issue for the time being.

Sutton pushed back, arguing two things: (1) that is not what the policy actually says, and (2) the board has the power to waive the policy requirements if they so choose. Estep later clarified that the interpretation of the policy came from the board’s attorney and that the board would, in fact, consider the issue at next week’s meeting.

A spokesperson for New Hanover County Schools (NHCS), responding on behalf of the board, noted while “changing a facility name has to adhere to the same processes and procedures as naming one, of course, any Board Member, can vote to change or waive this policy.”

What the renaming policy does, and doesn’t say

Estep cited policy 5400, which covers the naming of school facilities. The policy reads in part:

A facility may not be named for a current employee; one year must expire after a person’s employment ends before a draft proposal may come before the Board requesting that a facility be named after the employee.

In Estep’s initial response to Sutton, she wrote that “according to that policy, we would have to wait a year after an employee separates from employment before such a consideration can be placed on the agenda.”

However, the policy clearly addresses giving a facility a new name in honor of an employee — it says nothing about taking down a current name. If, for example, the board would consider renaming the stadium after another former employee who had been retired over a year, the policy says nothing about waiting for the current namesake to have been retired for a year.

This, of course, is only an issue because Holliday is one of the very few NHCS employees to have a facility named after themselves while still employed and alive. The policy has been changed several times over the last decade; if the current language had applied in 2005, the stadium could not have been named after Holliday.

The Board of Education did not respond to questions about the apparent difference between what the policy says and Estep’s response. According NHCS spokesperson Caress Clegg, board attorney Wayne Bullard “did consult with members of the Board regarding policy 5400.” In an email to Sutton, Estep was more direct, acknowledging that “the interpretation of policy 5400 did come from our Legal Counsel and was provided to all Board members.”

Questions about how Bullard reached this interpretation of the policy were not answered.

Legal interpretation or legal defense?

Since Sutton’s petition explicitly accuses Holliday of knowingly failing to report sexual misconduct by former NHCS employee Michael Earl Kelly, the move by Bullard may be defensive.

The claims in Sutton’s petition align closely with an ongoing criminal investigation by the state of failure to report sexual abuse and obstruction of justice, as well as the similar claims of a civil suit against the district, board, and top administrators (including Holliday and former Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley).

Because of that, it’s plausible that Bullard advised the board with litigation in mind. A move to rename the stadium, even if it did not directly cite Sutton’s petition, could be seen as a tacit admission to allegations against Holliday.

It’s worth noting that Bullard worked for years directly under Holliday. When the district promoted Holliday to deputy superintendent (a position that had been unoccupied for a decade) in 2013, he was put in charge of the in-house counsel. Since then, Bullard has increasingly taken a role speaking for the board — or silencing them — on issues like Title IX compliance, administrative salaries, or questions on hiring top positions. He has frequently ‘consulted’ with board members before they chose to decline to answer questions, and has had a strong hand in crafting the board’s responses to media questions when they have responded. Routinely, Bullard has steered the board away from public comment on issues that could result in or relate to litigation.

Petition push-back

After receiving Estep’s initial email with Bullard’s interpretation of policy, Sutton said he took the issue to several other attorneys. Sutton said he had “yet to find a lawyer that agrees with the Board’s legal counsel” or any evidence to support the “very creative interpretation of Policy 5400 which would’ve tabled the idea for getting this petition on the agenda for one year.”

After Sutton replied to Estep, stating as much, Estep responded to say that she had directed the board’s administrative assistant to put the issue on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting; policy technically requires the issue be put forward by a superintendent or a designee, or two board members; previously, board members Nelson Beaulieu and Judy Justice had said they were open to putting the item up for discussion.

Sutton said he has requested that Bullard contact the UNC School of Government for its interpretation of the school’s policy. He also noted, as the district itself had, that the board can vote to waive the policy even if Bullard upholds his interpretation that a one-year hold from Holliday’s date of retirement is necessary.

“They have the power to make it happen this Tuesday night, last thing we need is for our momentum to be stifled by misinterpretation. I want the board to know going into that meeting that they have the power to make this change immediately. I want them to have the opportunity to start moving us in the right direction,” Sutton said.

The Board of Education will hold a regular meeting on Tuesday, March 3, at 5:30 p.m. at the Board of Education Center located at 1805 S. 13th St. in Wilmington.

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

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