Thursday, December 8, 2022

“Whole process was screwed up”: New Hanover school board members cry foul on CFCC trustee nomination

Cape Fear Community College is facing a $1.5 million shortfall. The college also spent over $300,000 on a PR firm in less than six months -- much to the surprise of one board member. (Port City Daily photo | File)
Cape Fear Community College in downtown Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo/File)

WILMINGTON — Two members of the New Hanover Board of Education have criticized the recent nomination of a business development manager as the newest trustee for the Cape Fear Community College, calling the process unfair, confusing, and ultimately one that continued the school’s narrowing focus on workforce development over a broader push to expand general education.

The Board of Education appoints four of the fourteen CFCC trustees, along with four appointees from the New Hanover County commissioners, four from the Governor’s office, one from the Pender County commissioners, and the president of CFCC’s student government serving a non-voting ex officio member.

A confusing process

A June 10 virtual special meeting held to interview six applicants resulted in the appointment of Jason McLoud, who works at the engineering firm ECS Limited.

Although Chairwoman Lisa Estep sent instructions prior to the meeting explaining that the vote would come by a consensus, Bill Rivenbark quickly called for a motion to nominate McLoud after the interviews had concluded, followed by a 4-3 majority vote. Before his motion, Rivenbark confirmed with Estep there would be no discussion before a motion and a second to the motion.

“So it appears that we have a consensus,” Estep said after she made the final vote in the affirmative.

Judy Justice and Stefanie Adams then voiced complaints about the voting process, arguing that her prior instructions led them to believe all seven board members would need to come to an agreement on a nomination. Estep’s response conveyed a sense of confusion on the matter, and she said she would consult with the board’s interim attorney, Deborah Stagner.

“Well, it’s my understanding from Ms. Dagner that we have to have consensus … not … We have to have a majority, but we can certainly … She said she would … Well, she said she would be available to discuss. So if you’d like to get her on the line we can certainly get her on the line to discuss it, since it is a new format,” Estep said.

“The whole process was screwed up,” Justice said on Thursday. At least three board members were not informed that the interview process would take place with all candidates on the call at the same time, according to Justice, which allowed certain candidates, including McLeod, to hear the questions and answers of prior interviews.

She chided Estep’s handling of the initial vote — one that, to her, reflected the interests of a single group, not the community as a whole — and said she believed it was ‘rigged,’ similar to how she felt after a 2019 nomination.

“I’ve been around the block,” Justice said. “I was a school administrator and also worked in the business world. To me, ‘consensus’ is agreement after discussion. You don’t do an immediate up-and-down vote. Lisa did an awful job. But on the other hand, I almost felt like it was rigged. I felt last year’s [trustee nomination process] was rigged. It’s like, “We’re going to pick who we want. We’re the majority on the board. We’re going to decide this ahead of time.’”

According to an article about the consensus-based decision-making process by the American Heart Association, coming to a consensus refers to an “agreement on some decision by all members of the group, rather than a majority or a select group of representatives.” Merriam-Webster defines consensus as a general agreement, the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned, or group solidarity in sentiment and belief.

Justice told fellow board members after the vote that the school’s board of trustees continued to lack a diversity of knowledge and experience, and that she hadn’t understood the voting process. Rivenbark responded, “Well that’s your fault.”

Nelson Beaulieu also argued for a more diverse board of trustees.

“I do think there’s some redundancy on the current board of trustees with those skills, and I think some variance on the board at this time would be very valuable,” he said.

At one point, Estep acknowledged that she “confused the issue by saying we needed a consensus.” After consulting with the attorney, she agreed to retake the vote, and made a motion herself to do so. But after a discussion, the board then voted again 4-3 to nominate McLeod.

Justice said she sent a letter to fellow board members following the meeting to outline her complaints, and during a subsequent board meeting on June 16 she requested the board resubmit the application process.

During that meeting, she again expressed frustration about a question that was asked candidates: “The community college administration and the board has asked our appointee have an industry-focused background. How does your candidacy match that request?”

Justice said she had raised an issue with the same question during last year’s meeting, saying the word ‘industry’ was not defined and “delineates from the diversity we need in our community.”

At the beginning of the June 10 nomination meeting, Estep told the board that she was unable to contact a member of the CFCC Trustee Association representative to discuss questions related to the term “industry-focused background,” so no changes were made.

In response to questions sent by Port City Daily to the Board of Education, a spokesperson said all board members “had the opportunity both before the meeting and during to change, alter or delete questions, and were encouraged to provide input to the interview question list, which was the same as the prior year.”

But Justice noted on June 10 that it would be difficult to reach any agreement on changing the question minutes before the interviews took place. At the time, Estep agreed and apologized.

According to the board’s spokesperson, Ann Gibson, all board members have agreed to “revisit interview questions before the next trustee selection cycle.”

Another area of contention involved McLeod’s resume, which according to Justice was not received by all board members prior to the meeting. Gibson said this was due to a photocopying malfunction.

“Regarding board members’ access to applicant resumes, staff identified an error in photocopying of documents that caused pages of Mr. McLeod’s resume to stick to other pages as they were fed through the copier. Staff was not aware that this had occurred as Board packets were assembled,” Gibson said.

Before the second vote to nominate McLeod took place, Justice had raised an issue with not seeing his resume, but was advised by board member David Wortman to not “begin criticizing candidates” before Estep made a call for a vote.

Ultimately, Justice believed the nature of the nomination process showed a “one-sided” approach.

“This year we were hoping for a real process, and low and behold, they pulled another fast one on us,” Justice said.


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