Friday, April 12, 2024

Between public ‘separations’ and quiet resignations, half of NHCS’s top administration is gone

The DA along with Sheriff have requested an outside investigation into allegations against New Hanover County Schools administration. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
The New Hanover County Schools district has revised two polices since last fall. (Port City Daily photo / File)

WILMINGTON — Some have quietly stepped away, while others — like former Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley — had more high-profile exits. But either way, a significant part of the New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) administration has left since last summer.

Related: A closer look at suspensions and resignations in New Hanover County Schools, from custodians to Superintendent

While the overall numbers of resignations and retirements appear higher than usual, the district claims they aren’t out of the ordinary. But there’s no denying that the administration is looking very different these days.

Top administrators that are now gone include Markley, Dr. Rick Holliday, former Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources John Welmers, Director of Human Resources Robin Meiers, and General Counsel Wayne Bullard. There’s also the unique case of former Chief Communication Officer Valita Quattlebaum, who has been replaced but, according to the most recent public records requests, has neither resigned or retired.

Superintendent Markley

The top administrator, Markley, had the most public (and expensive) departure from the district. While at least one other buyout had been discussed, at least behind the scenes, Markley was also the only administrator who officially received a severance — paid $226,000 and allowed to resign in exchange for an agreement not to sue the district over prematurely ending his contract.

Related: Why didn’t New Hanover County’s School Board fire Superintendent Markley?

The agreement clearly had the prior blessing of the county’s Board of Commissioners, since the Board of Education did not have the money for Markley’s settlement, and it was approved after-the-fact by the commissioners (which would have been a fiscally unsound move without prior assurances).

While the school board declined to comment on the situation, it was clear members wanted Markley gone; Board of Commissioners Chair Julia Olson-Boseman was more direct, telling WECT, “I think that we would all just like to say ‘you’re fired.'”

It’s worth noting that, despite the fact that Markley’s ‘separation’ looked and felt to many like a firing, Markley has kept up appearances, retweeting posts from accounts for various schools, teachers, and administrators.

Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday

The process began with the retirement of Holliday, who announced he would be leaving less than a week after District Attorney Ben David confirmed the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) was investigating the district for failure to report sexual abuse and obstruction of justice.

Holliday’s retirement came as evidence mounted that he had known about misconduct by Michael Earl Kelly, the former NHCS teacher currently serving 16-31 years in prison for child sexual abuse, and Richard Priode, a former NHCS employee who was later arrested and convicted of having sex with a minor female student in Mecklenburg County. There was also clear evidence that Holliday, who took on the role of Title IX director when he became Deputy Superintendent, had systematically failed to keep the district’s Title IX policies up to date and that his handling of Title IX incidents had led to federal complaints and investigations.

Holliday left as rumors swirled that either NHCS or New Hanover County were working to raise funds to buy him out. A month before he retired, Holliday had been replaced as the Title IX director, when the county gave the district $100,000 for a new full-time position — a tacit acknowledgment of Holliday’s shortcomings. It wouldn’t be the last time the county sent funding to the district to help replace a top administrator.

Months after leaving, Holliday is still a contentious figure — as part of an ongoing debate about whether to remove his name from the Laney High School football stadium. Recently, outgoing General Counsel Wayne Bullard instructed the board that the district’s policy meant Holliday stadium couldn’t be renamed until after a year from Holliday’s retirement (although the policy does not address removing a name, only renaming). In early March, the board tabled the issue for a month.

Human resources retirements

Compared to Holliday, Dr. John Welmers was a much lower-profile figured at NHCS. Still, after the case against former Roland Grise band teacher Peter Michael Frank went public, the district’s entire human resources department was facing scrutiny — including Welmers and HR Director Robin Meiers.

As part of the investigation into Frank, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office filed a search warrant for his ‘official’ personnel files, held at the administration’s central office. Part of the search warrant application included evidence from Frank’s ‘local’ file, kept at Roland Grise. This local file including damning evidence that the school had been aware of Frank’s misconduct (including ‘inappropriate relationships with students’) for two decades.

Frustration and confusion followed — had the district been aware of Frank’s misconduct? Or was there a troubling disconnect between individual schools and central office? Board chair Lisa Estep offered to release parts of Frank’s personnel file, in part to help answer these questions, at a tense, messy press conference in late January. A month and a half later, those records still haven’t been released — and questions remain.

These questions went beyond Frank, as well. Did similarly concerning ‘local records’ exist for other teachers? Had a disconnect between schools and central office allowed Nicholas Lavon Oates, Michael Earl Kelly, or unnamed others to continue abusing students?

Then, as the Board of Commissioners prepared to send in detectives from NHCSO and social workers from the Department of Social Services, the administration — apparently at the behest of Dr. Markley — ordered that principals review their local files. The district later confirmed, “principals had been instructed to review their school level personnel files for all employees” to “ensure school-level administrators are familiar with the files of their staff as well as identify potential concerns.”

Markley refused to respond to questions about the timing and rationale of the move. The board said it had neither been notified of or approved the file review.

The review of files apparently began on the evening of Monday, February 3, the day before County Commissioners voted to approve sending in county resources. Port City Daily reported the file review the following day around noon on Tuesday, February 4 — at 7:45 p.m. that evening, the district announced Welmers’ resignation (he was later listed as retired on the district’s personnel records). No reason was given for Welmer’s departure.

A little over a week later, the district posted a job opening for the HR director position held by Robin Meiers; while her departure was not announced, she is listed as retired effective March 1, according to NHCS records.

A replacement for Welmers has not been announced. This week, the district hired Interim Human Resources Director Anthony Manzo.

Communication breakdown?

For years, the public voice of the district — and sometimes the Board of Education — had been Valita Quattlebaum, NHCS’s chief communication officer. Quattlebaum handled public record requests and requests for comment from the district on stories; she also sometimes pushed back against coverage, on several occasions expressing the districts ‘concerns’ or ‘disappointment’ with the way certain stories were presented.

Quattlebaum was also privy to discussions about potential articles that never published, either because sources chose to retract statements or not go on the record (frequently, this happened when sources claimed to fear retaliation). She was also conversant with personnel and student records, although she was often restricted by state law and unable to release that information.

In general, few people were more aware of what was going on in the district — and what the media was investigating — than Quattlebaum.

Then, in October of last year, Quattlebaum responded to an information request with a note that she would be out of the office. It was the last official communication from Quattlebaum — but she did not leave the district. At the same time, two other employees who had handled public relations in the past also left the district.

After the county approved providing assistance, employees from the county manager’s office and communication department began making regular appearances at school board meetings. According to Jessica Loeper, the county’s chief communication officer, county employees were there to assist with communications and logistics on a short-term basis.

After a press conference to announce the district’s ‘separation’ from Markley, Board Chair Estep would say only that Quattlebaum “isn’t here” adding that she couldn’t speak about it and the issue would be better discussed by the district’s HR department. As of mid-February, the district confirmed Quattlebaum was still employed by the district, and as of March 9, she was not listed as having resigned or retired, according to NHCS personnel records.

This week, the district hired Ann Gibson, a new chief communications officer.

Wayne Bullard

The most recent departure from the administration actually won’t be effective until this Tuesday, when General Counsel Wayne Bullard’s resignation will take effect.

Bullard served the district for many years and, in 2013, consolidated his role as in-house counsel reporting directly to Holliday (supervising Bullard was one of the duties listed as justification for bringing back the deputy superintendent position, which had been vacant for a decade before it was given to Holliday in 2013).

Among Bullard’s duties was reviewing the school’s policies. Under his tenure, there were several notable problems, including the district’s failure to maintain any policy against supervisors having romantic relationships with subordinate employees who reported to them, a lapse that was rectified only after it came to light that then-Superintendent Markley had been having an affair with his secretary (an employee who received considerable pay increases). Bullard also served while the district acted of interpretations of Title IX that led to federal complaints and maintained a service dog policy that directly contradicted (and likely violated) the American with Disabilities Act.

It’s worth noting that NHCS was one of five school systems out of the 115 in the state that did not utilize policy compliance services from the North Carolina School Board Association, the professional organization that offers support to school boards across the state. Last month, the school board approved accepting policy compliance assistance.

Bullard also took a strong hand in guiding statements from school board members, in some cases ghost-writing statements for elected officials who later simply signed off on them. Bullard also gagged elected officials, telling them they could not discuss a potentially problematic hire made by the district and that they could not individually discuss the disproportionately high salaries of the district’s administration (which included Bullard) compared to other comparably sized districts.

Bullard also went on the offensive at times, at one point sending Port City Daily a ‘letter of concern,’ cosigned by Quattlebaum, accusing the media of one-sided coverage of Title IX issues, although Markley, Holliday, and the district in general had routinely declined to comment.

Related: New Hanover school board’s attorney is filming ‘call to the audience’ speakers. Is it intimidation? [Free read]

In the end, Bullard resigned from the district, accusing members of the public of subjecting him to ‘extraordinary harassment.‘ Bullard defended his own conduct, including filming public speakers at board meetings, after a board member and public speakers said his behavior was clearly an attempt at intimidation. Bullard lamented that school board members had not defended him — something they were clearly not willing to do, as emails sent to the board asking for an explanation of his actions was answered with a one-sentence email from the district’s new chief communication officer saying his actions were not in keeping with the district’s policy or practice.

New Hanover County Schools General Counsel Wayne Bullard filming audience members who spoke during the public ‘call to the audience’ period of board meetings. Bullard only filmed speakers who were critical of him or the district. (Port City Daily photo / Contributed)

On Friday evening at around 8:15 p.m., Bullard sent an unsolicited email to local news outlets, providing them with his staff photo — the same one that had been on the NHCS website for years — with the message, “In case you want a better picture of me. Thank you.” 

The message may have been a response to local media outlets using a photo taken by audience members of Bullard filming public speakers. The missive is likely the last formal communication between him and the media before his resignation takes effect — a strange end to a troubled era.

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

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