Tuesday, April 23, 2024

NHCS addresses accusation of censoring board meeting, chair admits to adjourning improperly

Board members Stephanie Kraybill and Stephanie Walker exit the dais after an abrupt recess. (PCD).

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County Schools staff are revising recording procedures in place at school board meetings after facing accusations of censorship from the public and one board member. 

According to Chief Communications Officer Josh Smith, his team will record meetings without interruption from the time the doors open to the public until equipment is taken down at the end of the meeting. 

Previously, recordings began when the meeting was called to order and ended when adjourned. When the board was on a break or in closed session, the video would cut to a different screen or play a district promotional video. 

“I expect we will still occasionally work through technical issues, especially when guests or speakers are remote,” he said. “But we will otherwise operate much like a C-Span stream of congressional sessions: cameras rolling, microphones hot.” 

Since last week’s school board meeting, confusion has circulated regarding a tense exchange and its documentation between two board members.

Almost six hours into the school board meeting on Sept. 6, the board was discussing fees at sports games, nine agenda items away from adjournment. Board member Nelson Beaulieu noted the time. 

“It’s 10:45 at night and I apologize to you,” he said, directing his comment toward the audience. “This is silly.”

On the recording, while Beaulieu was speaking, board member Stephanie Walker can also be heard talking, to which board chair Stephanie Kraybill responded repeatedly and sternly: “Stop it.” 

Walker stood up and leaned over to say something to Kraybill in her ear, which is inaudible on the recording. On Tuesday, Walker told Port City Daily she told the chair to stop yelling “in her face.”

Kraybill then recessed the meeting and the two women stood and walked to the back room. The livestream video cuts off at this point, transferring to a screen notifying viewers the board is on a break. 

Kraybill explained the situation further.

“The action caught me off guard, and her words and her tone of delivery were concerning,” she wrote in an email Tuesday. “I needed to remove myself from the situation, so I called for a recess. I did not ask Ms. Walker to follow me off the dais.”

According to Walker, Judy Justice and Beaulieu, Kraybill asked NHCS attorney Colin Shive to come with her upon her exit. Walker told PCD while in the back room with Kraybill, the chair asked the attorney if she could adjourn the meeting. 

When the two members returned, Kraybill proceeded: “We will pick up the remaining items at our next available opportunity. Meeting over.” 

No motion to dismiss was presented, nor vote taken, a violation of Robert’s Rules of Order, which guide meeting processes. According to NHCS policy, the board chair may adjourn the meeting individually in the event of an emergency.

“I made a mistake in adjourning the meeting without a motion and a vote,” Kraybill admitted.

To add a touch of irony to the night’s events, board member Pete Wildeboer requested earlier in the meeting the board review Robert’s Rules of Order in the near future. He could not be reached for comment by press. 

Seconds after adjournment, the recording’s audio cut, though video shows Shive conversing with Kraybill. 

“I don’t know what the understanding was about adjourning the meeting, but he said, you can’t do that, you need a day and a time that you’re going to continue,” Walker told PCD. 

A new video begins five to 10 minutes later, after the meeting was called back to order. 

Smith told PCD “several minutes” passed.

Beaulieu, who was driving home when he was requested to return, said he didn’t know how long the video cut out, but estimated he was gone around 6 or 7 minutes. 

Walker said during the interim, what the video doesn’t show is her asking the board to continue the meeting, as only a few agenda items remained. The video resumes with board member Stephanie Adams making a motion to approve the proposed fee schedule. 

The allegations of censorship arose when it was discovered the district’s livestream of the event did not catch that entire exchange and resumption of the meeting.

On Sept. 8, board member Judy Justice took to Facebook to call out discrepancies in the recording, claiming the move was censorship. She also emailed Smith on Sept. 9: “Whether by intentional omission or by actual cutting of that part of the video, without a doubt this part of our meeting was censored out.” 

Smith explained when the meeting was initially adjourned, the broadcast coordinator Chase Fulton stopped recording as the audience and senior staff started packing away their things. 

“After several minutes, when it was evident the meeting was to continue, we — the senior staff — resumed our seats, and Mr. Fulton began recording/streaming again,” Smith said.

He added that everything they recorded was posted to the NHCS YouTube. His response to Justice’s email informed her the media was reaching out about her social media post.

“I humbly ask that prior to publicly calling into question the professionalism or ethics of me or any NHCS staff member, you ask the technical questions before posting,” Smith wrote in the email. “I am happy to discuss this further at the board’s pleasure in an open session.” 

Justice did not respond back to Smith and explained why to PCD.

“I think he’s doing his job, and I can’t blame him for that,” Justice said. “The lack of transparency is coming from the very top.”

Editor’s Note: Previous reporting used the district’s rules of decorum interchangeably with Robert’s Rules of Order. The article has been updated to clarify the difference. PCD regrets the error.

Reach out to Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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