NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County Schools’ relationship with its controversial equity firm is officially over. A majority of board of education members opted Tuesday night to work in-house on efforts to build more inclusive campuses.
Sophic Solutions has worked with the school system since February, holding community feedback meetings and using the input to pen an audit report. Released in August, the 26-page document pinpoints shortcomings and recommends ways the school district can become more equitable, inclusive and diverse.
In December, vice-chair Stephanie Walker — who helms the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee — directed senior staff to end the contract with the firm. The prior $17,000 agreement had expired, and a second $26,000 contract was agreed upon within the central office. Its term would have spanned from July 2021 through June 2022.
“After much discussion with members of the Board, and especially in light of our current budgeting conversations, we believe it is no longer necessary to retain the services of Sophic Solutions,” Walker wrote in an email, also copying chair Stephanie Kraybill and board and EDI committee member Hugh McManus.
Walker explained the district now has Dr. LaChawn Smith, the former deputy superintendent, working as the chief of diversity, equity and inclusion. The new position was recommended by Sophic Solutions.
In her email, Walker also pointed out that the board is about to embark on the process of developing a new strategic plan, which will identify the district’s goals for the next several years and likely prioritize equity.
Dr. Smith sent the notice of termination to the partners of the firm Jan. 4, informing them NHCS would no longer need its services after Jan. 31 and providing the minimum 20-day heads up required under the contract.
The following week, chair Kraybill informed board members via email that a committee did not have the authority to act on behalf of the board unless specifically authorized, per the district’s policy, and it was only supposed to make recommendations. The contract was subsequently placed on the board’s interim meeting agenda for a vote.
Board member Judy Justice contested this notion since the contract was not recommended for renewal.
“[T]hus why bring it to the board?” Justice wrote in a Jan. 10 response to Kraybill. “All you had to say to the press was that the EDI committee did not recommend a renewal, and then let the issue die its natural death. Now, here we go again, bringing attention to the board when it is not needed.”
Tuesday evening, when the discussion began, Nelson Beaulieu made a quick motion to retain the contract. He was seconded by Stefanie Adams.
Beaulieu said he was disappointed by how the termination played out, without consulting the full board and equity committee. He referenced a petition, published by WHQR, that several EDI Committee members signed in favor of keeping Sophic Solutions.
“We’re for equity, but $17,000? No,” Beaulieu said. “I mean, we spend money like water up here. $17,000 is an excellent expense.”
Without support from anyone besides Adams, the motion failed.
Justice was the only member to speak openly against the contract. She said the consultants were brought back to support the new equity officer, but noted the district is already spending extra money on her position.
NHCS is continuing to pay Smith the same salary she’s held as deputy superintendent: a 12-month base of $106,344, in addition to $10,536 in supplements and a $24,624 salary differential.
Instead of filling the role of deputy superintendent, the district is hiring a chief academic officer, which could cost up to $104,832 annually, in addition to a differential paid locally. The hiree will “set the strategic vision and direction for the instructional framework and pedagogical approach to NHCS’s academic programs.”
“We should be doing it in-house,” Justice said of the district’s equity work. “Or even better, doing it in state, if the new equity officer would like some assistance.”
NHCS has paid over $5,000 in traveling fees to Sophic Solutions, a Kansas City-based company with ties to the superintendent’s prior school district.
In her comments, Justice also mentioned that Smith’s hire was not discussed publicly. The board of education never took a vote to create the position or appoint Smith. When asked if one was required, the district’s communications office pointed Port City Daily to the superintendent’s contract. It states he may “organize, reorganize, and arrange the administrative and supervisory staff, as best serves the New Hanover County Schools.”
Beaulieu agreed with Justice that the public should be aware of what NHCS was doing — but highlighted a need for transparency on a different action: the termination of the contract.
“This was done behind closed doors and it’s disappointing, to say the least, to see our equity team in the press saying, ‘Look, we didn’t want this. We urge you to keep it,’” Beaulieu said.
The engagement of Sophic Solutions created some uproar last year among parents and community members, as well as members of the New Hanover County GOP, who perceive equity and inclusion efforts as divisive. Many fear students are learning they are either oppressed or oppressors based on the color of their skin.
“We are in full agreement with the Board’s decision and applaud it,” GOP Chairman Will Knecht wrote in an email Wednesday. “This vote is a win for our kids and a defeat for those who want to teach our children what to think instead of how to think.”
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