Thursday, June 13, 2024

Second CFCC trustee ousted in a year: Ray Funderburk removed amid allegations he acted inappropriately

Funderburk voted against college president Jim Morton’s recent raise, spoke out about Jimmy Hopkins’ removal

Former CFCC Trustee Ray Funderburk defending himself on Wednesday. He was removed by the board with the minimum number of votes. (Carl Blankenship/Port City Daily)

WILMINGTON — A Cape Fear Community College board member critical of the school’s leadership was removed as a trustee in a narrow vote Wednesday.

Ray Funderburk, unanimously appointed by the New Hanover County Board of Education in August, was ousted from his seat in a 9-4 vote by fellow board members. The move followed a pair of accusations that he made inappropriate comments during a student event that allegedly made the school look bad and attempted to influence a student’s grade, both occurring Feb. 1.

READ MORE: Former CFCC trustee decides against legal battle over wrongful board termination by Olson-Boseman

Funderburk, County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, New Hanover County NAACP president Deborah Maxwell and educator Deloris Rhodes each voted against the removal. The 13-member board required a two-thirds majority, nine votes in this case.

The first accusation against Funderburk stemmed from his attendance at a Black student forum last month. Toward the end of the forum, according to statements the trustees collected from attendees, Funderburk took the microphone and commended the event, but questioned why the public and media were not notified so they could attend.

Trustees vice-chair Jason McLeod, who investigated the incident at the behest of chair Bill Cherry, described statements from three people at the forum. Two pointed to Funderburk’s comments as inappropriate or “unneeded.” 

McLeod said it was unbecoming of a trustee to publicly question staff decisions and the event was intended to be a safe space for students, which was why it was not open to the public. He added Funderburk could have asked administration why it was not promoted outside the college instead of pose the question publicly.

Funderburk, during his response to McLeod’s presentation, maintained he should be allowed to speak his mind without filtering through administration. He also was complimentary of the event as a whole and indicated he “had a hard time getting out of there” because of the number of people who wanted to talk to him afterward.

The second accusation against Funderburk happened after the Black student forum, when he approached a CFCC instructor who was eating lunch on campus. The instructor taught a dual-enrollment high school student who failed his class, which eliminated the student’s eligibility to play baseball.

Funderburk told the board he never asked the instructor directly to change the student’s grade and denied that was his intent or expectation. Rather, he explained he was trying to get information about how high school students are prepared for college courses.

“I did not suggest, ask or even mention a grade change,” Funderburk said during his presentation. “There was no conversation about a grade change. I went to the instructor curious as to how high school students were prepared.”

The instructor wrote in an internal statement to McLeod, as read at the meeting, that he felt harassed and pressured to either change the failing grade or offer an alternative assignment to the student. The letter did not name Funderburk, but McLeod said he confirmed the faculty member was referring to Funderburk when describing “a trustee member.”

Names were withheld Wednesday night during discussion to protect the student’s identity per the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The instructor wrote he received emails from the students’ parents and coach after the visit from Funderburk. McLeod alleged the coach’s wife is a friend of Funderburk’s daughter.

Funderburk said he asked if the instructor was contacted by the coach and the instructor said he could not talk about the student. Funderburk replied he only wanted to know about college preparedness.

McLeod’s take was Funderburk did not have to ask for the grade to change because it was implied. The vice chair questioned why the specific instructor was sought out when Funderburk could have asked administration for college preparatory details instead. Funderburk answered he wanted to hear from the person actually implementing the college preparedness policy.

Trustees’ views on the issues were a mixed bag. Barfield, Maxwell and Rhodes considered evidence against Funderburk circumstantial and based heavily on opinion. 

During his presentation, McLeod used the phrase “in my opinion” several times. 

“I’m not going to vote to remove someone based on what I heard,” Barfield said and asked to hear testimony from people who offered statements, though they were not present.

Rhodes said the idea that trustees cannot speak their minds is worrisome because of the implications on faculty and staff speech. She also indicated the board could levy a punishment against Funderburk other than removal. Boards can censure members for their behavior without ousting them.

At the opening of his presentation, Funderburk complained board attorney Ken Gray colored the process ahead of any comments when Gray noted there were other minor grievances about Funderburk in the past. Gray made that comment while discussing how garden variety complaints often arise from the public about the character of trustees. Yet, not all of them merit disciplinary action.

Funderburk pointed out McLeod had a full month to investigate, though Funderburk was first notified only Monday about his potential removal. Funderburk also noted college bylaws do not say a trustee has to run every request for information through the president.

“This is obviously someone coming after me,” Funderburk said. “And that’s fine.”

Funderburk has pushed back on CFCC President Jim Morton and the board a handful of times in the past year. He was the sole vote against giving Morton a 10% raise in July.

He was also the only trustee to speak out after Jimmy Hopkins was ousted the same month. Former New Hanover County Commissioners Chair Julia Olson-Boseman attempted to exercise authority she did not have per state law to remove Hopkins. 

Hopkins claimed his removal was in retaliation for questioning the school’s due diligence process. Morton allegedly asked Hopkins to advocate for the county to purchase a new CFCC nursing facility on Front Street. Hopkins told Port City Daily he simply had no information about the building when the request was made.

Hopkins began to formulate a legal challenge to his removal, but ultimately withdrew and resigned from the board, citing the potential for an arduous, expensive court battle.

Funderburk was the lone trustee to speak out on Hopkins’ removal. He was also forced into a closed session in November when he began to make a public statement about the move.

President Morton sat in the audience Wednesday evening and listened during the entire meeting. He was never called upon to speak. Morton’s authority and deferring to him on policy was raised several times. County Commissioner Chair Bill Rivenbark noted he goes through Morton when he is looking for information.

However, the power dynamic between trustees and instructors was another sticking point. Trustee Bruce Shell said there is an implication of power over someone when a trustee speaks unprompted to a faculty member about a policy issue.

“The context put extraordinary pressure on the professor,” he said, adding he has nothing against Funderburk personally.

Trustee Bruce Muskowitz echoed the sentiment, but explained his intention was not to question Funderburk’s character, rather his judgment.

“I don’t think we would be here if that was some random question asked of a teacher not involved with the student’s grade,” Muskowitz added.

Cherry was more blunt, accusing Funderburk of not communicating with him or the administration. 

“Mr. Funderburk does not understand, or wants to understand the difference between policy making and administration,” Cherry said.

The behavior would “destroy the college,” he lodged, before stating how Funderburk’s conduct could raise questions about the college’s accreditation if the board did not address it.

Cherry declined to comment after the meeting but issued a pre-typed statement to media who attended the meeting:

“The Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees takes its duty to the college and the community seriously and believes the decision to vacate the position of Ray Funderburk, III, as a Trustee is in the best interest of the college and its students.

“After careful consideration by the Board and despite warnings, Mr. Funderburk’s actions overstepped his role as a trustee.

“The Board of Trustees remains committed to the success of CFCC and its students and looks forward to supporting the College as it moves forward.”

As soon as the decision was made to boot Funderburk, he exited the building and declined to comment to the media.

Funderburk’s attorney, Gary Shipman, denied the allegations against his clients, according to an interview with WECT. Shipman alleged the former trustee was being retaliated against for being critical of Morton.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell said in his 17 years in state government, and as a current member of the state community college board, he has never heard of a trustee being removed, let alone twice at the same institution in less than a year.

“Lightning struck twice at the same place,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Winston-Salem or Wilmington, or Waynseville,” Folwell said. “Anybody who is afraid of any member of the public, much less a trustee, asking tough questions that have to deal with transparency, competency, governance and conflicts of interest; the person who the question is being asked of, if that’s not suitable to them then they should be the one to leave.”

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