NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Monday night, a small yet vocal and well-known faction of education activists, along with school board member Judy Justice, crammed into a teal office space on New Centre Drive. They joined New Hanover County Democratic Party officers who were slated to meet in person for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.
With a large empty conference area across the hall, the group sought extra seats, pulling swivel chairs into corners of the warm and cramped room to observe the officials discuss business. Democratic Party chair Andre Brown, who took his post in April, said he only learned about the group’s interest in attending the open meeting 24 hours prior. He added, according to longtime party members, there had never been that much turnout for an officers’ meeting in at least eight years.
The planned 45-minute meeting turned into a public comment session as Brown offered the guests an opportunity to speak on their concerns.
“It seems as though a lot of folks are here to comment about [the] school board,” the chair said. “So what’s gonna happen next, I’m gonna give everyone two minutes. Because I gotta get my crew out of here. We did not know this was going down.”
As they went around the room, those in attendance pleaded for the party to match recent efforts of the GOP to influence school board decisions and hold local Democratic politicians accountable. The discussion ended with Justice pleading: “I need you. This county needs you. Seriously.”
After Justice spoke, the officers abruptly voted to go into closed session without any discussion, sending attendees scurrying into the hallway. From outside the door, those who stuck around could hear the officials screaming at each other, leaving one official in tears as she exited the room.
What caused the contention
There were three items on the agenda that piqued the interest of the public Monday night: one titled “expectations and decorum among officers,” a proposed resolution and statement regarding sexual abuse coverup in the school system, and a discussion about the recent board of education meetings.
Over the past several months, the New Hanover County GOP successfully garnered support for a movement to halt the alleged teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) –– or more so, efforts associated with the word “equity” –– in a public school system that is in effect, heavily segregated. Disparities between students of color and their white peers in New Hanover County Schools is evident through data on free and reduced lunch and suspensions.
“The GOP has been out about all of this. I mean, the latest is anti-equity, anti-CRT, I mean, it’s craziness,” attendee Eden Avery told officers. “They have been out shouting –– and not just crazies –– but the GOP. The party. So we need to be a little more in tune with what is happening in the community, and be able to step up.”
At a protest outside the June 8 school board meeting, the group of education advocates would have easily been outnumbered by the GOP had other activists not shown up, including the LGBTQIA community and the lowercase leaders –– who typically do not attend school-board meetings in full but rather as individuals. While conservatives circled in the walkway denouncing critical race theory, progressives joined on the steps reciting Black Lives Matter chants, and at times the two parties clashed.
“We were able to hold our own, not because the Democratic party — because of those unaffiliated that showed up out there, came in the room and spoke for our kids,” Justice, a Democrat, told officers. “That’s what we need to do. We need to be proactive and look forward. We need to meet and match what the Republicans are doing.”
Two of the officers from the Democratic party attended last week’s board of education meeting. Third vice chair Dorian Cromartie, a regular at school board meetings, said he put forth the idea to issue a statement on behalf of the Democratic party. After a few days of debate over whether the statement should be narrow or broad, the party agreed on a safe and comprehensive comment that would fit within the two-minute time limit allocated to public speakers.
Cromartie shared the following statement: “The New Hanover County Democratic Party fully supports the educators, administrators, and school board members of New Hanover County public schools in their pursuit to improve our public school system and the lives of our most precious resource: We want more the equity, diversity and inclusion, we believe that we can grow better together when we include everyone. We support our board and any positive endeavors they may come upon. Thank you for your time. Thank you for everything you do.”
In an interview with Port City Daily, Brown said he believes educators should discuss race in the classroom.
“How do you explain 1898 without discussing race? How do you discuss what happened with George Floyd and the response?” Brown said.
Holding candidates accountable
Secretary April Farr spoke in the public comment section of last week’s board of education meeting in favor of a controversial policy that allows transgender middle school athletes to participate on the sports teams that matches their gender identity. The vote passed 5-2. She also criticized the use of school resource officers and vocalized her displeasure with an alleged conflict of interest involving the board attorney.
As Farr handed a copy of her prepared comment to Port City Daily during Monday’s Democratic party meeting, members of the party clarified Farr’s statement was her own — not issued on behalf of the Democratic party.
Attendees in the room Monday asked the party leaders to make it clear what their stance was on issues, specifically sexual assault in the schools. They requested the party hold more Democrats in positions of power accountable.
“Just because you have a ‘D’ beside your name does not mean that they are going to vote on issues,” social worker Angie Kahney told officers.
Kahney said she feels she can only rely on Justice and board member Stephanie Walker to support issues she and others care about. Second vice chair Susanne Werner questioned Kahney early into the meeting about not being a registered Democrat: “You’re unaffiliated, is that right?”
In the interview, Brown said he believes the Democratic candidates who were elected to the school board have upheld the party’s values and voted together on most issues. In the 2020 local elections, Democrats overthrew the longtime Republican majority on the school board. Walker and Hugh McManus were the two blue-party candidates to join the board alongside Democrats Justice, Stefanie Adams and Nelson Beaulieu, who themselves were elected in 2018, disrupting an all-Republican board.
Last Tuesday, McManus and Pete Wildeboer, who was appointed by the GOP to fill Bill Rivenbark’s seat, were the only two votes against the controverisal transgender athletes policy. Republican Stephanie Kraybill voted in favor of it.
McManus, a former principal, told Port City Daily in November he originally wanted to run as an unaffiliated candidate, but he did not want to petition to get on the ballot so he chose to run as a Democrat.
On Monday, Chris Sutton was in a similar position. He explained to party leaders he was interested in running for school board and contemplating whether to file as a Democrat or Republican. He was initially cut off during his introduction and told the meeting needed to be kept on schedule, then finished his explanation later into the evening.
After giving each attendee two minutes to speak, the officers took a vote to go into “executive session” and discuss “sensitive matters.” It only tackled one item openly: a presentation on DOING, or Democrats Organizing in Neighbor Groups, an effort to increase voter turnout for Democrats.
On the way out of the building, Brown asked one of the attendees if she had his back. Those who overheard the comment questioned the motive behind it. Some said yelling broke out in the parking lot, but Brown described it as a conversation in which he told people to call or email him if they needed to reach him about issues.
Brown explained the reason the school board meeting was on the agenda was to discuss what happened and to strategize, but the members didn’t intend on solidifying any plans Monday. He explained the reason “decorum among officers” was on the agenda was because the group is relatively new to each other and needed to discuss expectations, though some in attendance suggested Cromartie and Farr were under fire for disagreements with the majority of the leadership.
In an interview the day after the meeting, Cromartie said the party is suffering from “growing pains.” In its most recent election, the party nominated a new board with diverse members spanning different ages and ethnicities.
“We’re still trying to learn and understand each other’s leadership style,” Cromartie said.
Brown said the party must decide which issues to speak on based on group consensus. Asked if he would organize efforts to challenge the GOP’s ideas at any upcoming protest, he said he didn’t want to focus on the GOP.
“For us, we focus on the Democratic Party values and our agenda,” Brown said. “Because what can happen, you can get pulled into something where Republicans are leading the narrative. I feel we’re leaders. We set the tone as the Democratic party. We don’t allow any other party to do that for us.”
Cromartie said he has other outlets –– boards and committees he serves on, including the NAACP –– for speaking on issues at government meetings when he is not appointed to speak on behalf of the party.
“When the door is closed, you don’t have to worry about if I’ve got your back or not,” Cromartie said.
The Democrats next regular meeting is Monday, June 21, starting at 6 p.m. at 5041 New Centre Dr.
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