NEW HANOVER COUNTY — When shots rang out inside New Hanover High in August, it was a wake-up call for local officials. An uptick in violence had spilled over into schools, impacting the lives of thousands of youth as several campuses locked down districtwide. Within days, New Hanover County officials had offered a share of a $350-million pot of money to fix the underlying issues — with no plan and no deadlines in place.
Now there is one. It spans three years, it’s likely to cost $89 million, and it will add potentially 121 employees to the county payroll. The money was expected to come from the sale of the county-owned hospital system, which is reserved for community crises and emergencies.
Back in early September, in a room with the school board, chairperson Julia Olson-Boseman called the ongoing violence a crisis. Mid-meeting, she circled the room and whispered to other elected officials before making a motion, without prior public discussion, to designate the funding to efforts that would prevent another on-campus shooting. The motion passed unanimously.
Monday, in the county’s meeting, Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening reiterated to commissioners the epidemic level of violence: “It’s time to act. Please, don’t blink,” he cautioned.
County manager Chris Coudriet floated the idea of implementing the $89-million plan as soon as possible.
“Full speed, full scale,” he said.
But later in the meeting, several commissioners showed hesitancy in dipping into the hospital profits, and instead considered the idea of seeking other funding options. They called it being “fiscally responsible” and “accountable” by holding senior staff to a standard of presenting a series of budget amendments for their individual approval. Commissioners also questioned the monetary contribution from the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County Schools, which, to this point, hasn’t been discussed.
“The city pays county taxes just as well as we do,” Commissioner Bill Rivenbark said. “So they’ve got a dog in this fight.”
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield made the motion to consider alternative funding, including American Rescue Plan dollars and the county’s fund balance, before turning to the hospital funds. He was seconded by Hays. The motion passed soon after, with only Rivenbark and Olson-Boseman dissenting.
Barfield explained he wanted clarity on how the resources were spent while recommitting to the mission.
“I don’t plan on blinking,” he added.
$280 million of the $350 million has been invested, and Barfield said he prefers to see the return on that. A county spokesperson explained after the meeting that the county can sell the investment at any time to retrieve a portion of the money. However, $94 million is expected to mature within three years. With the $70 million that is uninvested, the county anticipates a total of $164 million in liquid assets in three years.
Barfield added that he “would have appreciated” if staff had interrupted commissioners before the Sept. 3 vote at the joint meeting and reminded the officials that the dollars had been invested. He blamed TV outlets for continually misreporting that $350 million would be used for the initiative. (Prior to Monday, it was unknown how much would be spent, but the county had committed to obtaining the money from $350 million in hospital profits.)
“For me, my intent was not to spend $350 million,” Barfield said. “It was to leverage resources to help combat this challenge and problem that we have throughout the entirety of New Hanover County, and I had no means of giving your team or anyone a blank check to say go and access all this money and spend it until you have no more to spend, without any accountability from this board.”
When reminded by Olson-Boseman that they took a majority vote to use that money, Barfield said it only takes a simple majority to change where the money comes from.
“So we’re hiccuping. We’re blinking. We’re stopping — is what you want to do, Commissioner Barfield?” Olson-Boseman accused. “Is that my understanding?”
“I had no intention of blinking, no intention of stopping,” Barfield responded. “I just want to be informed every step of the way.”
So what is the plan?
The plan Coudriet broke down to commissioners Monday was still relatively vague and not entirely fleshed out, though it was more specific than updates shared in the past. As he has before, the county manager warned that further details could expose “the playbook,” considering the security issues the county is trying to keep sealed from public disclosure.
Over the course of at least five closed-door meetings, Coudriet said he met with law enforcement, the school system, community members most disproportionately affected by the violence, and at least eight students who were in the presence of the high school shooting that sparked all this.
Rivenbark shared that, in a recent meeting, he sat at a table with four students and the New Hanover High School principal.
“[They] told us how they felt about the school, and it wasn’t pretty,” Rivenbark said. “I mean, they’re scared, and a kid shouldn’t have to go to school like that.”
The $89-million framework includes $43 million for hardscape improvements on campuses, which would be designed and built over multiple years. Of that hardscape allotment, $25.5 million would go to modifications on the perimeters and ingress and egress points; $15 million to enhancing surveillance; and $1.5 million to “community-based and facility renovations for education, social, emotional, and life-skill enhancements.”
The remaining $46 million would be invested in people. Specifically, $15 million over three years would grow so-called wrap-around services. Names dropped during the meeting included local nonprofits already engaged in the community: Voyage, Communities in Schools and Coastal Horizons. $3 million is proposed to go toward efforts to de-escalate situations, resolve conflicts and gather information on potential threats.
One initiative that originally excited commissioners about the idea of investing the hospital funds was Bull City United, a program in Durham that reduces gun crime in violent census tracts. The county government employs people with street credibility as “violence interrupters,” who intervene when tensions are brewing on the streets.
Coudriet suggested a similar model is built into the $89-million investment plan. Judge Corpening mentioned the city was once pitched the Bull City United model years back, but “they blinked.”
Also in the framework, $12 million would fund objectives that “eliminate education barriers.” That includes doubling county-funded pre-K (which was recently doubled from three to six classrooms with the recent budget approval) and increasing at-risk education intervention. It will also financially support people in their journey to earning CTE certifications; recipients would be students who otherwise face hurdles, such as a lack of affordable daycare or transportation, in attending classes.
Sixteen million in the spending strategy is set aside to ensure there is at least one resource officer at each school, at least one security officer to monitor each campus and its perimeter, and at least two adults on every bus.
Coudriet suggested school resource officers and bus monitors can build crucial relationships with students.
“Who is that adult model on the bus that a child can begin to identify with, understand their shared experiences and have trust [to say], ‘This is happening, maybe in my home. This is happening, maybe in my neighborhood. This is gonna happen this afternoon on the school campus,’” Coudriet said.
Vice Chair Deb Hays questioned if it was possible to fill those roles when a shortage of bus drivers and law enforcement officers already exists.
More details of the spending strategy are expected to come out in the coming weeks and months. On Monday, the county launched an anonymous survey for the community to give input.
The 10-question survey is open through Nov. 1, available here.
After the meeting, Olson-Boseman sent the following email to her fellow commissioners and copied WWAY:
“Jonathan, Rob and Deb,
I have never been more disappointed in the three of you than I am today. You blinked. Any violence that occurs in the community based on y’all’s vote today is on you.