NEW HANOVER COUNTY – When New Hanover County commissioners celebrated the full-time reopening of elementary schools under “Plan A” in a joint press conference last month, chair Julia Olson-Boseman stepped to the mic as the event wrapped up, looked into TV reporters’ cameras and attested:
“We’re not just up here having a press conference. We’re actually gonna do the work.”
Comments on a Facebook livestream of the press conference rolled in:
“No amount of money is worth my life!”
“Thank commissioners for bribery.”
“I’d rather them say that the commissioners wanted us to move to plan A so we did. Be honest.”
Leading up to the media event, the public was speculating over the influence of the commissioners on the New Hanover County Schools Board of Education’s decision to reopen elementary schools fully. The commissioners had just allocated $2.75 million for NHCS staff bonuses on Dec. 7, while in the same breath asking the school district to reopen elementary schools full time.
The school board had complied with their request, voting the following day, Dec. 8, to reopen elementary schools fully at the start of the new semester, Jan. 11.
As the reopening date neared, the commissioners and school board scheduled their joint meeting for Jan. 20. The purpose was to discuss county and school system priorities.
It would be one of the first time in years the full boards of the two government bodies had publicly held a joint meeting, despite NHCS struggling over the years with the mismanagement of students’ sexual assault allegations, the subsequent upheaval of its top administrators and persistent growth of the school system.
“How can we spend a quarter of our entire budget, approximately $100 million a year out of a $400 million budget, and not have a sit-down with the people, in this case, the board of education, to discuss priorities?” said commissioner Rob Zapple, who has advocated for joint meetings between the school board and county in the past.
But when the board of education countered commissioners’ recommendation Wednesday in choosing to scrap its plans to transition to full-time learning this month, the same day, commissioners postponed the joint meeting to a date to be determined.
Olson-Boseman made it clear why.
“Given their inability to deal with Covid effectively, they seem to have their hands full,” Olson-Boseman said during a commissioners’ agenda review meeting Wednesday. “I would ask that that meeting be postponed until the numbers look right, madam clerk. Would you let us know when the numbers look right to meet again? And I’m sure the school board will know what that means because they seem to know about numbers.”
The school board had gone against the commissioners’ wishes when it voted 6-1 to continue all remote learning (Plan C) for another week and resume a hybrid model (Plan B), in which students attend school face to face twice a week and learn from home the remainder. The assistant superintendent of operations said it could resume Plan B as soon as Jan. 25.
Right after the school board vote, Olson-Boseman took to Facebook to denounce the decision: “Elementary schools should be the first thing to open, not restaurants and bars. Over 80% of elementary school parents want their kids back 5 days!! The school board is taking away parents [sic] choice. When will they put students [sic] needs first !!! Thank you Nelson Beaulieu for fighting for our students!!!”
The discord this week marks a sharp turnaround for the two boards, which touted claims of a newfound collaboration just last month. This strong reaction begs the question of whether commissioners would retaliate against the school district if it disregards or deviates from their opinions and input.
This fiscal year New Hanover County commissioners allocated more than $113 million to NHCS; however, it is rare for county leaders to attempt to exert policy control over the school board. Olson-Boseman said she is not interested in retaliating against the board of education, but she wants to work with the board to ensure funding is utilized “in the way it was intended.”
“And if that means Commissioners being more involved and working closer on decisions specific to how that money is used, then I think that is appropriate,” she wrote in an email.
Olson-Boseman’s vice chair Deb Hays shared a similar opinion: “Commissioners don’t make decisions for the school system, but we do financially support public education, which means we need to have some influence and oversight.”
After Olson-Boseman posted her Facebook status, school board member Stephanie Walker sent her an email, asking that she retract her “personal condemnation.” Walker told Olson-Boseman the rhetoric endangered school board members, especially in light of the Capitol riot Jan. 6.
“Disagreement is fine,” Walker wrote, “but personal, driven rhetoric against another elected body reflects poorly on our community and fans the flames of emotion at a time when we’re all doing our best to get by.”
School board member Judy Justice said she was also disappointed in the statements and hoped it was just the freshness of the news that led Olson-Boseman to chide the board.
“This pandemic is nobody’s fault and we should be working together to get through it,” Justice said. “Her statements aren’t productive. That doesn’t help the community, so it doesn’t help our schools or our kids.”
Other school board members did not wish to comment on individual comments, although Hugh McManus did vocalize his appreciation of their funding and Stephanie Kraybill said the chairwoman was entitled to her opinion.
Nelson Beaulieu said he had “no comment whatsoever” on the matter, while Pete Wildeboer and board of education chair Stefanie Adams did not respond to comment on this story.
Asked about her comments, Olson-Boseman expressed frustration that the schools were having to alter their plans again.
“Our students and our school staff deserve more consideration than that,” Olson-Boseman said.
However, it’s likely without the prodding of the commissioners, the school board may have never voted on Plan A to begin with.
Up until Olson-Boseman and the commissioners voiced their opinions on the matter, while giving bonuses to NHCS staff in December, NHCS had not expressed any serious interest in moving into Plan A.
In November, NHCS assistant superintendent of support services Julie Varnam and New Hanover County assistant health director Carla Turner presented their desired metrics for reopening and said elementary schools should not resume full-time learning until the countywide percent of positive tests lowered to 5% or less. The positivity rate is now hovering around 11%.
However, the ABC Science Collaborative told NHCS this week it recommends schools consider spread on campuses – not rates within the surrounding community – when making decisions.
NHCS parents, particularly those advocating for Plan B, were suspicious of the commissioners’ supposed no-strings-attached Christmas bonuses for school staff, especially since the funds were approved as part of a public request from the commissioners for the school board to implement Plan A.
Suspicions intensified when a “transition plan” appeared on the board-of-education agenda as an action item within days of the commissioners’ recommendation. The month prior, Superintendent Charles Foust had insisted the district could not move into Plan A safely. He told the board other school districts in North Carolina operating in Plan A were not following recommended protocols, such as social distancing and sanitizing playgrounds, and it was making New Hanover County look like “the bad guys” for not opening its elementary schools fully.
After bonuses were allocated, Foust recommended Plan A the next day. He was suddenly rushing the board, including four new members sworn in that night, to vote on the matter.
The board members accepted Foust’s recommendation, but the decision was clearly a reluctant one. Justice asked to delay the vote to allow new board members time to think it through. Although Adams and Beaulieu were clearly in support of sending students to Plan A, the other board members were hesitant and questioning. The 5-2 vote was only made after the board clarified it could have a subsequent meeting to reaffirm its decision.
“I’ll take it on the chin that we probably should not have even voted in December to move to Plan A,” Kraybill said Friday, “but our superintendent recommended it and assured us that we could do it.”
Kraybill added that she did not feel comfortable about the safety of reopening schools after administrators presented final plans Jan. 13.
Just days after the Dec. 8 meeting, the board met again for a retreat, during which they decided to postpone the move to Plan A for another week, until Jan. 19.
Weeks later, on Jan. 13, upon a steady and alarming rise in Covid-19 numbers across the county and state, the board made its most recent decision to hold off on Plan A until the effects of the pandemic had eased or teachers were vaccinated.
When Justice made a motion to return to Plan B, it was expected of her by audience members.
When Kraybill asked her not to rescind but to reframe her motion, it was clear the issue was once again up for debate.
After Wildeboer said Plan B was a “good middle ground,” it became obvious the board wouldn’t have the votes to move forward with Plan A.
And when Adams said she would no longer support the move herself – after strongly pushing for it last month and celebrating it in the press conference alongside county commissioners – that was the nail in the coffin.
All were on board with postponing Plan A, except for Beaulieu.
“I really stand by it,” Beaulieu said Friday. “I know that it would be risky to go to Plan A. I understand that. I’m not blind to that. I know that my fellow board members are correct, but I also believe that I’m correct. I don’t think anybody’s wrong.”
In the meeting, Adams explained she could no longer support the move to Plan A. She pointed out that, per the state’s Covid-19 alert system, the situation in the county had gotten worse. In a month’s time, the county had turned from yellow to orange to red, the most dangerous of the three-tier color designations signaling critical levels of community spread.
Before the decision was made, the board heard from public health officials and Dr. Ibukun Akinboyo, a specialist in infection prevention with the ABC Science Collaborative.
McManus said the presentation from the ABC Science Collaborative was a “turning point” for him. Although the data showed schools in Plan A experienced little Covid-19 spread, it was only reflective of six out of 115 school districts in North Carolina.
Kraybill had similar thoughts. She said the presentation may have been beneficial for districts looking to stay in Plan B or considering moving from Plan C into Plan B, but she couldn’t apply it to New Hanover County’s situation.
The administration also showed a survey that suggested 83% of students were enrolling in school full time. However, the parents did not have the option to choose Plan B, the hybrid of in-person and at-home learning, which may have skewed results.
Kraybill said from what she’s heard in the community, the debate between Plan A and B is about 40/40, with 20% of people unsure what the answer is. She also noted she studied five school board meetings ahead of the NHCS meeting and none voted unanimously on their reopening plans.
“That just shows you how this situation across our state is impacting people,” Kraybill said. “There is no right answer and there is no wrong answer – but the wrong answer is to do something that you don’t feel you’re comfortable with supporting.”
Send tips and comments to Alex Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org.