NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– The New Hanover County Board of Education convened Tuesday for its interim monthly meeting and reached final decisions on several items of interest.
Early into the meeting, members joined in a one-and-a-half-hour closed session concerning personnel matters, student records and attorney-client privileged information. After the open session, a second closed session lasted an hour at the end of the meeting.
The board also celebrated the promotion of teacher Christa Faison to assistant principal at New Hanover High as it passed its personnel report before moving into old business and taking several divided votes.
Here are three decisions the board made:
1. In a split decision, NHCS won’t name football field after popular coach
Board members were split in a decision to name Laney High School’s football field after a respected coach.
In July the stadium as a whole was renamed from the Rick Holliday Stadium to Buccaneer Stadium in a unanimous vote. However, board members were close to naming it after Coach Larry Tootoo.
This summer more than half of survey respondents suggested bestowing the name “Tootoo” upon the facility. But when the idea came up during the board meeting, it was shot down by board member Stephanie Kraybill and vice chair Nelson Beaulieu.
On Tuesday, board member Judy Justice reintroduced the discussion, moving to name the field after Tootoo. She received a second from board member Pete Wildeboer.
“I am having a real hard time with us talking about this again,” Kraybill said. “I mean, this is the second time that we brought this up.”
Backed by Beaulieu again, Kraybill argued placing Tootoo’s name on the field is a violation of Policy 5400, the district’s renaming policy. The policy asserts “facilities may only be named for geographic terms or with words or terms that have meaning for a given school.”
Justice disagreed with Kraybill’s interpretation. She said the name did have a “meaning” for the school.
“He was such a beloved coach that they literally nicknamed the field, even now, ‘Tootoo’s field,’” she said. “So it’s a meaning. It’s not just a person that they’re naming it after.”
Wildeboer debated the policy as well, since it does not specifically state a facility cannot be named after a person.
“He does mean a lot to a lot of people at Laney High School,” Wildeboer said.
Board member Stephanie Walker said she didn’t know Tootoo personally, but she favored the proposed designation based on the overwhelming response to the survey. She called the naming policy “ambiguous” and suggested if money was donated the it may be interpreted differently.
In the previous meeting, board member Hugh McManus seemed in support of honoring Tootoo after speaking highly of him and saying he deserved recognition. Still, he vocalized similar concerns to Beaulieu’s and Kraybill’s about straying from policy.
Without the support of McManus, the motion failed 3-4. Justice, Walker and Wildeboer were the only members in favor of the designation.
2. ‘Extensive’ public records will now cost
Requestors of public records may need to foot the bill when seeking large amounts of documentation.
In a 5-2 vote, Policy 5070 –– the public records retention, release and disposition policy –– was amended to include fees for “extensive” requests.
Beaulieu, who chairs the policy committee, explained the district is responding to a large number of time-consuming public records requests. North Carolina general statute permits a “special service charge” for actual cost incurred when it requires extensive use of resources or personnel.
Defined within the policy, requests are considered extensive when the time it takes for staff to fulfill them exceeds four hours. Before releasing records, the school system will give an estimate of any special service charges so the requester has the choice between payment or narrowing their scope.
Superintendent Charles Foust told the board the district is rarely fulfilling four-plus hours worth of requests, but sometimes certain asks turn up a million-plus emails. “That takes away from someone’s job that they’re supposed to do,” Foust said.
From April 2020 to March 2021, New Hanover County Schools paid its law firm $22,598.50 for assisting the communications team and redacting records, according to a presentation attorney Deborah Stagner gave to the board in June. However, the district cannot legally charge for fees associated with redacting files.
NHCS is now hiring an administrative support position under its communication outreach division to help facilitate public records requests. With benefits included, the position will cost taxpayers approximately $50,000. The NHCS communications department is also procuring software to establish an online portal where users can review already-fulfilled public records requests, and may be able to get their questions answered. The technology also has a rapid redaction feature.
Chief financial officer Mary Hazel Small said she plans to present a fee schedule in October to show the average costs of certain public record requests, which should give people an idea how much it will be beforehand. Justice said she would have preferred to review those figures before passing the policy.
Justice was also concerned tacking on fees would discourage people from seeking out what is rightfully theirs.
“A FOIA to me is a public right, since we’re a public entity,” Justice said. “And in all honesty, a lot of this is truly coming from what was going on the last several years. The discoveries from past, if you want to say, ‘bad actors,’ sadly. And I really think if we can get ourselves under a situation where that’s not going on, that would be a whole different situation, where we wouldn’t even be asking this kind of question.”
Despite Justice’s dispute, Adams motioned to approve a bundle of policies, which included 5070. Justice attempted to amend the motion to pull Policy 5070 for further discussion, but it failed with only Walker supporting the amendment.
The policy passed 5-2. Walker and Justice were opposed.
3. The deadline to place items on board agenda was tightened
Policy 2330, the board meeting agenda policy, was amended to tighten the deadline for placing items on the agendas.
Items must be added to the agenda now six days prior to agenda reviews, which take place the Wednesday before a meeting, rather than six days prior to the actual board meeting.
“We decided that in order to perform our job as a board, and in order to allow our staff to perform their jobs effectively, we needed to change the date in which agenda additions would be received,” Beaulieu explained.
Justice took issue with the proposed change and argued it limited the opportunity to place issues on the agenda that may come up.
“I think that’s a big stretch to take it back,” she said.
Justice has struggled to successfully place items on the agenda at all. Earlier in the meeting, as the board voted to approve the agenda, Justice was stopped from proposing a change after Adams told her she couldn’t add last-minute items to a special meeting. (Adams successfully led a vote of no confidence against Justice in June. One of her reasonings was that Justice “consistently brings forward action items without prior notice or conversation with either Board Members or the Superintendent.”)
Walker said she regularly requests items for placement on the agenda to no avail. The board’s policy is that the chair and superintendent create the agenda; however, two board members who agree to a certain item can contribute it by contacting the chair or vice chair.
“I would like, somehow, if we have to adjust this or add language to the policy, that we get that nailed down because it’s frustrating for me as a board member to try and get things on agenda, and I’m just blocked all the time,” Walker said.
Adams said she suggested the new timeline because it was “unfair” to senior staff to add items just a few days in advance of the meeting, which may place unexpected assignments on the staff and interrupt their other work.
“I’ve heard from two people that have issues with 2330. That is not a majority of the board,” Adams said.
Policy 2330 was approved as drafted in the 5-2 vote, with Walker and Justice dissenting, along with the other policies.
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