NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Coming off a difficult 2020, the freshly elected leadership to the New Hanover County Board of Education was hopeful they could regain the trust of the community alongside recently hired Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust.
Restoring confidence in the district would be no easy feat: In 2020, a third New Hanover County Schools employee in two years was arrested for sex crimes against students, and the administration also had to deal with Covid-19 shuttering schools, exposing inequities within the system.
2021 proved just as rocky: Two more employees were taken into custody for felony sex crimes, and politics brought contention to school board meetings –– from mask mandates to critical race theory.
Here’s a look back on the past year.
The reopening debates
On New Year’s Eve, the New Hanover County Association of Educators called reporters to the steps of the board of education center and recited their list of demands for the district to comply with once elementary schools reopened full-time Jan. 19. At the top of their list was a guarantee that they’d make room for teachers and students to distance six feet.
But schools didn’t start back up full time. The week before the spring semester began, the board changed its mind in light of concerning Covid-19 transmission rates. K-5 students continued in all-remote learning for an additional week, then on Jan. 25 resumed “Plan B,” a hybrid model where students attended school only twice a week and learned virtually the remainder of the days.
With picket signs, parents demanded that schools reopen. County commissioner chair Julia Olson-Boseman, who had pushed for full reopening and agreed to approve teacher bonuses (reportedly with no strings attached), expressed her displeasure in the decision to reverse course. A historic joint meeting between the two boards was called off by Olson-Boseman, who said “given their inability to deal with Covid effectively, they seem to have their hands full.” It was later rescheduled.
The following month, Gov. Roy Cooper called on school districts statewide to reopen elementary schools for full-time in-person instruction. Within hours the New Hanover County Board of Education scheduled a special meeting, during which it voted to allow elementary students to return to physical classrooms five days a week, starting Mar. 8.
It was the first time in nearly a year students had been in classrooms full time.
Later in March, the governor signed a “compromise bill” that gave local school systems the option to fully reopen middle and high schools, which they didn’t have the authority to do before. Starting Apr. 12, the district allowed middle and high schoolers to have their pick of full-time face-to-face instruction, half-virtual and half-in-person instruction, or entirely virtual instruction.
The revival of the Title IX survey
With newly sworn-in leaders at the dais she believed would support her, board member Judy Justice led the charge to revisit a Title IX survey that had been shelved at the start of the pandemic
Intended to gauge school climate when it comes to Title IX issues, the old draft that was retrieved didn’t include any mention of sexual assault.
Justice accused board members of pulling questions from the survey, but then-vice chair Nelson Beaulieu told Justice her complaints were “categorically false.” Later, documents obtained by Port City Daily revealed the mention of sexual assault was included in earlier drafts of the long-planned survey but left out of more recent iterations.
In February, the NHCS Title IX Committee re-committed to producing a survey specific to whether students are experiencing sexual harassment.
On May 18, the final copy of the survey was approved for distribution to middle school and high school.
The confidential questionnaire was given out the week of Nov. 15 and sought to measure how many students were enduring or witnessing Title IX issues and how students felt about reporting such incidents.
Results will most likely be revealed at an upcoming regularly scheduled board meeting.
A movement to end suspensions for 4, 5, 6 and 7 years old
“Sometimes they whisper, sometimes they shout
Sometimes they’re still or they will wiggle about
They may obey or be out of control
They’re just 4, 5, 6 and 7 years old
You gotta love our children
Love our children
You’ve got to love our children and keep them learning in school”
Those are lyrics written by Peter Rawitsch, one of the voices behind the “Love Our Children” campaign to end suspensions for ages 4 to 7. He sang his song to the school board members during their last call to the audience of 2021.
The movement to stop suspending young children has picked up steam since a petition was published online earlier this year. Proponents argue the punishment of removing students from school only leaves them behind academically and diminishes their trust in adults, making them more likely to drop out in the future or enter the juvenile justice system.
The NHCS Board Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is engaging in discussions about alternatives to suspensions amongst the 4 to 7 age range, most recently at its Nov. 1 meeting, and there’s likely to be more conversations on the effort in 2022.
The doubling list of John Does
At the start of the year, a lawsuit filed against NHCS for negligence listed six “John Does,” alleged sex abuse victims of Michael Earl Kelly. The former Teacher of the Year is currently serving up to 31.25 years in prison for 59 criminal charges.
As the year comes to a close, the list has grown to 14 “John Does,” and a trial is set for Sept. 26, WECT reported. Along with Kelly and the board of education, former superintendent Tim Markley and deputy superintendent Rick Holliday are included as defendants in the suit.
This year the district reached an impasse after the board’s liability insurance company Liberty Mutual stated only $4 million in coverage would be made available.
In July board member Stephanie Kraybill made a swift motion to hire attorney Fredrick Sharpless without explanation. Later in October, Sharpless clarified publicly he was brought in as separate counsel to step in and settle a dispute between the board of education and Liberty Mutual. Since Tharrington Smith LLP is serving the insurance company, he said it would be a conflict of interest for them to get involved.
Sharpless said he disagrees with Liberty Mutual’s position that only one of the insurance policies purchased throughout the years is applicable.
“It’s our opinion that multiple policies and multiple coverage agreements apply and therefore there’s far more insurance coverage available,” Sharpless said. “This has made it very, very difficult for the board to address the lawsuit brought by the John Does.”
The school board also sent out requests for qualifications this year to possibly replace its contracted law firm, Tharrington Smith, and heard a pitch from another firm, Poyner Spruill LLC, in December. No action was taken.
Anxieties heighten over documentary
Award-winning filmmaker Kerry David has left Wilmington to finalize her upcoming documentary about the alleged cover-up of sexual abuse and racism in NHCS.
The project is tentatively titled “Open Secret.” Ironically, it had been an open secret itself in the community as David called people for interviews and word spread about the film. The documentarian shared details about the project with Port City Daily in March.
In August David received an anonymous, typed letter, stamped from the New Hanover County Democratic Party. It claimed David was being “used as a tool” and described Adams and Beaulieu as victims, whose families have been destroyed “on the altar of Judy’s ambition.”
“Both of them took the high road (a mistake) and tried to stay out of the pig pen,” the anonymous letter states. “In the meantime, Judy [Justice] sees this as a zero sum game. She only wins if others go down and she has no problem demonizing, threatening, and lying.”
The letter also accuses Democrat party leaders Dorian Cromartie and April Farr, who this year were at odds with the other party leaders, of following Justice for their own political ambitions.
Around the same time as the letter was sent, a webinar between the school board members and Democrats was announced for Aug. 30. It was later canceled and David received another letter in the mail subsequently.
Mailed Aug. 25, the note said the state chairperson had forced the party to cancel the webinar.
“Now Nelson and Stephanie will not be able to defend themselves in public,” the anonymous sender wrote.
David said Adams declined to be on camera, and she was not interested in speaking to Beaulieu because he plays a minor role in the film. She said she wants the documentary to be a testament to the victims.
It is slated for a 2022 release.
Two more employees charged for felony sex crimes
Noble Middle School vice principal David Bostian and Hoggard High volleyball coach Ronnie Strickland both joined the list of NHCS employees charged with felony sex crimes this year, bringing the total to five since 2018.
Both their accusations were from decades ago, with victims coming forward this year.
Bostian, 59, was arrested Apr. 2, just hours after Claudia Gardner broke her 30-year silence to a deputy over the phone. Gardner said as a student at New Hanover High in the ‘90s, she had an inappropriate relationship with Bostian, who was a gym teacher at the time.
According to Gardner, a detective told her the evidence she provided was so overwhelming they did not want to wait for an in-person interview and arrested him early the next morning.
Released on a $150,000 unsecured bond, he had shot himself in the driveway of his home by 9 a.m.
Gardner shared her story with Port City Daily, including numerous texts she and Bostian had exchanged between Mar. 18 and Mar. 25. She said she felt uncomfortable with his position at Noble Middle and had asked Bostian to resign in exchange for her silence.
“I take all responsibility,” one text from Bostian’s number stated. “I’m just saying that what I did has been with me deep down.”
Days after Bostian died, Gardener received a letter in the mail, sent Mar. 31. In the top corner of the envelope, “DB” was written above the address –– Noble Middle School’s address. Enclosed were five $100 bills.
Gardner said the detective told her $500 is what a 15-year-old would take.
Just a few days later, high school volleyball coach Ronnie Lynn Strickland was arrested Apr. 12 for alleged sex crimes against minors in the ‘80s.
Warrants for the 67-year-old’s arrest allege he engaged in vaginal intercourse and a sexual act on a 16-year-old’s birthday in 1980 and partook in other sexual acts with a different teenager in 1983 and 1984. In both cases, he had “assumed the position of a parent in the home,” the warrants stated.
Strickland’s next court date is Jan. 10.
“Critical race theory”
After NHCS’ hired a “change management consulting firm” earlier this year, the district began hearing increasing concerns over teachings of “critical race theory” in classrooms.
The issue isn’t unique to NHCS. Across the nation and in the state legislature, politicians have debated how children should be learning about race in school and whether some conversations make white children feel lesser than their Black peers. Even neighboring Brunswick County Schools banned teachings of critical race theory without the express permission of the board.
School system leaders have denied the college-level study is being taught, though it did award a $17,000 contract to the firm Sophic Solutions in February to assist in “its journey of embodying the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.”
The New Hanover County GOP and constituents took issue with the use of taxpayer dollars.
“This is all part of this woke culture that is just going unchecked and out of control,” NHC GOP chair Will Knecht told Port City Daily in May.
After that, the GOP rallied its constituents to tell the board how they feel.
Things get heated
Once word got out the GOP was rounding protesters to come out to the next board of education meeting, those of opposing political beliefs made plans to show as well. The LGBTQ community and allies were also in attendance to support a proposed policy on the agenda that would allow middle schoolers to play the sport matching their gender identity.
But since the school system was only permitting 50 people inside the building due to Covid-19 precautions, the rivals gathered outside and at times attempted to push their way through the door. It was a sea of signs; peaceful debates ensued between some, while screaming matches turned into tears among others. Chants of “Black Lives Matter” clashed with “All Lives Matter.”
The contention continued the following month –– but this time, the district had dropped capacity limits and allowed up to 170 attendees inside. The emotions were captured within the room. With then-chair Stefanie Adams absent, Beaulieu was in charge of managing the crowd that night. The meeting was recessed before public comment finished due to the number of outbursts. One person was detained. Physical altercations nearly erupted outside.
When the meeting reconvened a week later, board member Hugh McManus said he didn’t mind being the one to “ask the question” about how NHCS is addressing CRT-like materials.
“Is there reference of slavery in history? Yes. Is there reference of injustices in the history books? Yes,” Foust responded. “Are we teaching critical race theory as it’s written at the collegiate level? … No.”
Though no crowds have since matched the summer turnouts, smaller groups have continued displays at board meetings, usually to protest masks. At times they have been equally unruly. Some have become hostile with New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office deputies, either demanding entry without masks or going inside only to remove their face covering once sitting and then getting kicked out.
The number of deputies who patrol each meeting has grown since the summer, and there are plans to install security cameras outside the building.
Adams leads vote of no confidence against Justice
If it wasn’t already clear they weren’t buddy-buddy, Adams proved as much true when she called a special meeting for the sole purpose of leading a no-confidence vote against her fellow board member, Justice in June.
The two had butt heads at the dais in the past, usually when Justice accused Adams of hindering her from placing items on the agenda.
The hour-long meeting is posted to YouTube and shows the two arguing, as well as other members acknowledging how “embarrassing” and “personal” it all is.
County boosts school funding, then leaders threaten to take it away
Teachers in New Hanover County became the highest paid in North Carolina this year with the passage of the county budget over the summer.
Supplements from the county jumped from an average of $4,183 to $9,000. That’s above Wake County Schools’ 2020-21 rate of $8,873 and Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s $8,818.
“It’s a very happy day for me,” chair Olson-Boseman said at a budget presentation in May. “I’ve been fighting for teacher pay for –– I don’t know how long.”
Last month, though, the chairwoman pointed out the commissioners were frustrated with the school district’s recent spending priorities and, to no objection from her colleagues, said she didn’t want to plan the next budget with per-pupil spending as high as $3,434 — a $527 increase over the past year’s rate.
Shots fired at New Hanover High
On Aug. 30, a fight between multiple students in the catwalk of New Hanover High School escalated to gunfire.
Within an hour of the shooting, cell phone video of the incident went viral. It showed students throwing punches and being dragged across the hall, then the sound of gunshots and suddenly students scrambling. One student was injured and taken to the hospital.
Here’s what happened after:
Students were evacuated on foot to Williston Middle School, less than a mile away, while the 15-year-old suspect was still loose.
Parents waited hours outside the middle school to reunite with their kids, and some argued with deputies and administrators on the scene. Distrustful guardians speculated that the administrators and law enforcement could have locked their kids up in the middle school with the shooter and wouldn’t have known the difference.
It didn’t help that New Hanover High parents only received two phone calls and two emails from the district that day. (The communications arrived concurrently and contained the same message.)
The suspect was apprehended around 2 p.m. and local law enforcement immediately began a press conference, which it didn’t widely announce to the press. Sheriff Ed McMahon and district attorney Ben David refused to take questions, despite journalists and families having innumerable questions about decisions made throughout the day.
The sheriff dropped the name of the juvenile in a news conference, then backtracked later and asked media outlets to refrain from using his name. (The suspect is now being tried as an adult, and his next court date is Jan. 10.)
The following week, New Hanover High’s principal announced the school would implement a clear bag policy, which received an outpour of negative reactions. He ended up revoking the decision and apologized.
The mother of the suspect accused the district of failing her son. She said he was in a fight the first day of school under the catwalk and she had gone to administrators for help. The day after the media reports, Foust denied receiving any “verification of bullying” connected to the shooting.
The Friday after the shooting, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to allocate money from its $350 million in profits from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center for the purpose of making schools safer and ending community violence. There was no plan, timeline or budget, and a majority of commissioners have since asked county staff to seek out other funding sources. The latest iteration of the spending strategy, which is continuously refined, deploys millions to community initiatives, such as expanding pre-K and easing access to higher education. The county has decided to roll hardscape campus safety improvements into the annual budget.
The mask debate
With schools now appearing to be open for the long haul, Covid-related debates in schools have largely revolved around masks. Until recently, public schools were some of the few places in New Hanover County where people, specifically children, were required to wear a face covering.
The board of education voted in August to start the new school year with a mask requirement in place. The officials agreed it was their best bet to keep students in the classroom as much as possible this year, considering state guidance does not require students to quarantine following Covid-19 exposure if they were masked.
Gov. Roy Cooper signed a new bill into law at the end of August that requires North Carolina school boards to reconsider and revote monthly on the mask policy. Since the item is repeatedly on the agenda, it continues to draw audiences who are passionate about the subject, which Adams told Port City Daily is difficult.
The Proud Boys also started appearing at government meetings this year because of masks, making their debut at the board of education center in November. One Proud Boy, who refrained from sharing his identity, told PCD it was time to “ramp up pressure” by showing up in uniform.
With cases low, the board voted during that meeting to schedule another meeting to discuss the mask mandate. It ended up not following the lead of the county’s health board, which had rescinded the countywide mandate the prior Friday, and kept its mask policy in place. A few weeks later on Dec. 7, two board members had a change of heart; Kraybill and Hugh McManus voted to move to an optional masking procedure.
The next mask vote, which will determine if the optional policy will continue in 2022, is slated for Jan 4.
The district has struggled to recruit bus drivers in the past, but Covid-19 exacerbated the issue this year. Before the pandemic, NHCS had around 150 drivers. As of September, the transportation department was making it work with about 100 drivers by having students walk farther to “community stops” and conducting “double runs.”
Schools are also navigating with less substitutes, and educators are giving up their planning periods to cover classes. In an effort to bridge the gap, the district increased its substitute pay rate to the highest in the region and created a $30 stipend for teachers who cover a class during their planning period or take in students from other classrooms for the day.
Now, teacher assistants are asking for higher salaries, pointing out some of their students earn more per hour in their part-time gigs than they do. The North Carolina budget, passed in November, is raising pay statewide for non-certified school staff to a minimum of $14 per hour and $15 in 2022.
Commissioner chair Olson-Boseman, whose board granted funding to raise teacher pay but did not address non-certified staff, specifically brought up TAs when expressing her frustration with the school district and board earlier in December. Vice-chair Deb Hays had previously pressed Foust on why they weren’t using nearly $100 million in Covid-19 relief funding to boost the TAs’ income.
Board member Kraybill will lead the board in 2022 as chair after she was appointed to the position by her fellow board members in December. She succeeds Adams, who wasn’t interested in another run as chair.
Stephanie Walker is the new vice chair, replacing Beaulieu.
Candidates also began filing for the 2022 election this year –– that is, until filing was called off due to state lawsuits over gerrymandering. Those who had sought candidacy for the board of education before it was suspended included: Beaulieu and Justice, whose terms are nearing expiration, as well as Dorian Cromartie and Melissa Mason.
Chris Sutton is attempting to garner enough signatures to run as an independent.
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