NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– After six-plus months of butting heads at the dais, New Hanover County Board of Education chair Stefanie Adams led a successful no-confidence vote against fellow board member Judy Justice Tuesday. She claimed Justice’s behavior was out of line with board policy.
The motion passed 4-3, with board members Pete Wildeboer, Stephanie Walker and Justice opposed. The declaration suggests Justice’s actions are inconsistent with the board’s ethics policy and misrepresents its focus. No action is taken against Justice as a result of the vote.
Justice failed to pass a subsequent censure against Adams. Only Justice and Walker supported the motion.
Although the two often disagreed in the past, tensions between Adams and Justice heightened in recent weeks after Adams accused Justice of lying in a well-attended meeting June 8. For months Justice has struggled to successfully place items of interest onto the board agendas, of which Adams oversees the creation. In December Walker initiated a vote to replace Adams with Justice as chair, but it failed and Adams was reappointed to her post.
In the most recent regular meeting, Adams repeated “stop lying” to Justice three times after Justice claimed Adams told her the board would address an alleged conflict of interest involving the board attorney at the meeting. Justice also accused Adams of dropping an F-bomb, directed at her, in a closed session, which Adams denied, stating: “Again, stop lying.”
Other than Walker, no other board members volunteered information about whether Adams swore at Justice in the closed meeting.
Board members Stephanie Kraybill and Nelson Beaulieu sided with Adams, while Walker unwaveringly stood by Justice’s side.
Stuck in the middle were Wildeboer and Hugh McManus. Early into the meeting, Wildeboer quoted scripture and explained everyone, including him, was guilty of violating policy at some point.
McManus, who stayed relatively silent for the majority of the meeting, was vocally frustrated toward the end and referred to the situation as “totally embarrassing.”
“If I were watching this today and I was not on the board I would say, ‘What idiots have we elected?’” McManus said. “Every one of us.”
NHCS announced the special meeting Sunday and shared the purpose was “a discussion of compliance with Board Policy 2120,” the ethics code for school board members. The public notice forewarned action could be taken related to the vague agenda item.
Over social media, people speculated about the origin of the meeting, suspecting Adams would bring the hammer down on Justice. One Facebook user commented on a parent group: “This might qualify as must see TV.”
A disaster from the start
“I would like to object” were some of the first words spoken in the meeting, confirming inklings that a heated exchange was in store.
Immediately after Adams attempted to call the meeting to order, Justice protested. She went on to question if the meeting was properly called and noticed. Adams assured her it was advertised 48 hours in advance to the appropriate channels and that, as board chair, she had the authority to call a special meeting.
In one of the first steps toward moving the meeting forward, Walker and Justice voted against the approval of the agenda. The majority agreed to proceed, so Adams continued to lead the meeting.
The session was held virtually over Zoom, but the public could watch via YouTube. The hour’s worth of contentious debate is available online.
Superintendent Charles Foust and several other members of NHCS staff observed silently. Board attorney Deborah Stagner –– who Justice recently attempted to make a motion to fire –– provided legal guidance throughout the session.
Early into the meeting, viewers who suspected Justice would be on trial were found to be correct.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that board member Judy Justice’s behaviors are not productive to the mission of this board,” Adams began.
Adams read a prepared list of examples of poor behavior by Justice. Each example referenced a line in the board’s ethics policy (read the full statement at the end of this article). Adams claimed Justice was not in compliance with the code on all the examples. The chair also repeatedly stated the concerns arose from board members, not her.
Early into the list, Adams condemned Justice for publicly accusing superintendent Foust of violating policy after he silently met with New Hanover County leaders in December. After the meeting, the county commissioners approved bonuses for NHCS teachers while, in the same breath, pleaded for the school board to reopen elementary schools fully. At the time students were learning remotely part-time due to Covid-19.
The day after the commissioners made their request, the superintendent asked the newly sworn-in board members to approve an unexpected school reopening plan.
Adams called the non-public meeting with county officials “working collaboratively.” Justice called it working “behind closed doors to arrange a blindsiding.”
Adams’ main concern was that the accusation against Foust disregarding policy was false, which resulted in the board having to release a statement to correct the allegations. She said Justice had yet to acknowledge the inaccuracies.
On Tuesday, Justice stuck by her claim. She stated Foust was supposed to communicate with board members when he met with other county officials.
“All board members should have known,” Justice said. “That’s what’s called transparency. And what happened . . . when I objected to it was called accountability.”
Adams also accused Justice of bringing forth action items without prior notice or conversation. On June 8, Justice attempted to terminate the contract with the board’s legal services, Tharrington Smith. Adams called this a “surprise motion.”
Justice said she discusses her motions with the other members regularly. She acknowledged she rarely speaks with Adams and Beaulieu outside of meetings.
Adams also nailed Justice for not attending Title IX training in April, which makes her ineligible to work on appeals for the school system. Justice said she couldn’t make the training due to a serious family emergency, but Adams said she was not made aware of that reasoning.
After Justice explained she arranged private training with the Title IX director, Kraybill said that was inaccurate since the director recommended a third party conduct the instruction.
Adams also said she heard complaints from the public about Justice, to which Justice said she received “plenty of complaints” about Adams, vice chair Beaulieu and every other board member.
In light of her list, Adams called for the motion of no confidence. Justice accused Adams of only calling the meeting because she learned of Justice’s attempts to bring a censure against her.
“She called this meeting, and it almost seems like she was trying to protect herself and jump ahead of what was going on,” Justice said.
Despite Justice’s rebuttals –– and Walker coming to her defense, stating “this feels very personal” –– the motion of no confidence passed in the split vote.
Censuring Ms. Adams
As Adams attempted to adjourn the meeting, Justice interrupted and motioned to censure Adams. She quickly received a second from Walker, who then amended the motion to require that Adams apologize for accusing Justice of lying.
The amended motion confused board members, who were unclear what they were voting on. Members then questioned how an apology was handled procedurally, and then started to question whether the entire meeting was ego-driven: “We are modeling childish behavior for our children,” Beaulieu said. “We need to adjourn this meeting, and move on.”
Adams threatened to step down if a censure vote passed: “To those of you on the board that have told me time and time again that you have my back and you support me, this is disappointing to me to even be having this conversation.”
The censure motion failed. After the meeting, Adams released a statement through the district’s communications office. She acknowledged the meeting was “tough to watch” but called the action taken “necessary.”
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