NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A majority of the New Hanover County Board of Education members voted Friday afternoon to censure Judy Justice based on accusations that she revealed confidential information about a district employee.
Personnel issues are largely protected by state statute and sharing details with individuals not legally entitled to the knowledge is a violation of the board’s policy.
In her defense, Justice denied that she broke any state law, but she did not argue against the accusations that she went against policy. She said her action was unintentional.
In the hour-long meeting, members were careful not to reveal who the staff member in question was or give details of the situation. While Justice downplayed the severity of the allegations, chair Stephanie Kraybill said the special meeting was necessary and the matter was serious.
“Our vote says volumes about where we all stand,” Kraybill said in an interview post-meeting, “and that we are all just ready now, as a unified board. Hopefully, we will all be able to pull that together and get back to the work of educating our students and providing the best opportunities for them to learn.”
Kraybill began the meeting with a warning to the audience, mostly made up of a small group of Justice’s supporters, to keep their handmade signs low and not yell out.
Justice fought for the chance to defend herself ahead of a closed session, but the board, including Justice, had already approved the agenda. The board then went into a closed session for close to half an hour to discuss the personnel situation. Any deliberation on the censure was to be held openly, Kraybill reiterated.
After returning from closed session, Justice launched into her defense by accusing other board members of wasting the district’s energy with the censure while the pandemic was ongoing and the omicron variant was spreading in classrooms.
“Our schools are stretched thin. We’re not talking about that, though. We’re talking about this,” Justice said. “Instead, here we are again, using needed time and resources because of the personal vendetta of several board members, which is a result of my fighting for full transparency while holding people accountable since taking office.”
Justice argued that all board members have violated policy and recited a prepared list of examples, such that board members did not investigate sexual assault in schools or the racial disparity in the Spanish-immersion program at Forest Hills Elementary that made headlines years ago.
She also brought to light how Superintendent Charles Foust accused her of harassment in the workplace.
Justice said he had no evidence to support his allegations and she wanted board members to “hold Dr. Foust accountable” for defamation and breaking the board relations policy, but at least five refused. Speaking at the only point in the entire meeting, Foust said he had 275 emails to prove the harassment. After the meeting, Justice “vehemently” denied that many emails exist.
“Those harassments was me asking you to do your job repeatedly,” Justice said.
She went on to say Foust refuses to communicate with her and at least one other board member. The board’s attorney, Colin Shive, advised Justice not to speak further on the matter, and Kraybill said Justice’s accusations against Foust and other board members were “not germane.” The attorney agreed with Kraybill minutes later.
“Ms. Justice, I believe we’re skating on pretty thin ice here,” Shive said.
Justice’s statements provoked Kraybill to call a recess and pull the attorney into another room with her and Foust. A few minutes after, the three came out and Shive asked Justice to meet him in the backroom. Board member Stephanie Walker joined as her witness. Justice said after the meeting Shive was cautioning her to be careful.
When she returned from speaking with the lawyer, Justice concluded her defense.
“I’m embarrassed for this whole board. We’re better than this — or we should be better than this,” she said. “We ran for office to try to help our district, not to turn this into the best show in town. We have got huge problems, not just a pandemic.”
Walker was the only vote against the censure, besides Justice.
“I think we’re not getting to the work we need to get to, and it’s frustrating and it’s aggravating,” Walker said. “I’m tired of the personal stuff. It’s getting very old.”
Nelson Beaulieu and Stefanie Adams, both elected alongside Justice in 2018, were the only other members to make comments before the censure vote. Hugh McManus and Pete Wildeboer, elected in 2020, did not speak at any point.
“I want to be clear: We’re not talking about you, Ms. Justice. We’re here for our staff,” Beaulieu said. “An action you undertook hurt our staff. I don’t want to be doing this. I wouldn’t be doing this. You can hurt me all day long. Your actions hurt one of our staff members.”
Adams called Justice’s action a “gross violation” and said she needed to be held accountable.
“You shared a lot of words, but we’re here today to talk about an action,” Adams said. “Did it happen? Yes. So if that’s the question, then that is our answer. Everything else that was shared was secondary and, frankly, I think it is a deflection.”
In an interview after the meeting, Kraybill iterated it was not personal and the board is committed to following procedures. Appointed to the board chair role in December, Kraybil has already begun attempts to be more stringent in conducting business. In the first regular meeting, she cut off discussions, typically prolonged by Justice, in the interest of time.
She also has proposed a lottery system for call to the audience, stating that teaching assistants and advocates for a suspension ban have been dominating the discussion and others need a chance to speak. The suggestion has already received wide pushback and will be discussed at the next meeting on Tuesday.
After the censure, Kraybill said she hopes that Justice won’t break policy again, and Justice said she intends to be more careful.
“Everybody’s entitled to a mistake,” Kraybill said, “and I am ready for us to move forward.”
The censure comes with no consequences. Similarly, the board took a vote of no confidence against Justice over the summer without any punishment. Justice still intends to run for re-election in 2022.
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