NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Two school board members have advanced a policy in New Hanover County Schools to create consequences for board members’ ethical violations, opening the district up to legal concerns.
On Tuesday, the New Hanover County Schools policy committee suggested an amendment to Policy 2120: Code of Ethics for Board Members to include two new tenets, put forth by committee chair Josie Barnhart. Another amendment suggested by Pat Bradford will allow a majority vote to remove board members from committee positions for violations.
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The current code of ethics includes commitments such as objective decision making, civility, and effective communication with board members and district staff. Barnhart’s suggested tenets state the board should:
- not seek individual retaliation of other board members’ motives for personal reasons, i.e. religious and/or political;
- understand our role and to not overstep as a board member, a chairperson liaison, or an appointee to subcommittees.
Amendments were also made by suggestion from the North Carolina School Boards Association.
The updated language requires board members comply with all conduct policies regardless of whether the policies expressly mention board members. It also states board members should refrain from participating in, deliberating on, voting on, or attempting to influence any matters regarding a board member’s spouse, such as hiring decisions, as it constitutes a conflict of interest.
The amendments passed 2-1, with committee member Stephanie Kraybill dissenting. The policy will go before the entire school board at their June meeting.
For violators of the code, Bradford’s language states the chair can openly address the infraction and give the board member at fault an opportunity for apology. If the majority of board members find the member has violated policy, the member will be removed from committee assignments for 90 days on first violation, 180 days on second, then the remainder of their term thereafter.
“We’re here to do the business of the board, we’re here to do the business of the school district,” Bradford said during discussion. “We’re not here for political platforms, we’re not here to disparage people.”
Barnhart agreed, thanking Bradford for bringing forth a suggestion for accountability.
“There have been personal attacks on the dais multiple times by multiple different board members, with the new incoming members and the old ones,” Barnhart said.
Kraybill said the board already has “board norms” in place and the ability to censor board members, though Bradford countered that effort is essentially futile. Though not calling her out by name, Bradford referred to the censoring of Judy Justice in 2022 only made matters worse, calling the previous board a “crazy clown show.”
Still, Kraybill called the measure “overreach.”
The board’s legal counsel, Jason Weber, noted removing members from committees may be complicated, as they are elected leaders. He said even censoring a board member has First Amendment concerns, and removing appointments to committees could result in legal action.
“By taking away a board member’s right to voice an opinion, either through Robert’s Rules of Order and objecting to someone who makes a motion that you don’t like or taking them off a committee and limiting their ability to influence others on the whole entire board — I don’t think that’s what a school board is meant to be,” Kraybill said.
The policy committee discussed several other hot-button topics like vaccines, suspensions and student behavior.
When reviewing the NCSBA’s recommended changes to the immunization policy, Bradford said she had a problem with the last requirement in the list: “any other vaccine as may be required by law or regulation.” Bradford wanted to strike the language.
“I’m not going to vote for anything that requires a general vaccination,” Bradford said. “I’m just not going there; I’m way too raw from what we just came through.”
Weber clarified the board cannot decide what vaccines the district requires, as that is a decision of the state. He said the board could strike the language, but it would not exempt the district from future federal or state guidance.
Bradford also supported an amendment on the district’s short-term suspension policy.
After publication, Pat Bradford reached out to Port City Daily on May 19 suggesting she did not author the policy amendment, as PCD originally reported.
The outlet responded shortly after asking for clarification and reached out to district spokesperson Josh Smith to verify whether or not Bradford proposed the text amendment. Smith responded she did.
The following day, Bradford insisted to PCD she did not propose the language. The outlet sent the exchange and followup to Smith for clarification; he wrote back:
“Upon further research, the particular item outlined below was incorporated into the agenda by a district staff member who aids in policy revision. This was done at the request of Ms. Barnhart, based on a conversation she had with Ms. Bradford after a community member brought up a concern.
The language read: “A parent or guardian would need to be present at any meeting or appeal.”
Bradford supported the language, stating a parent or guardian should be present during the informal hearing process that occurs before a child is suspended.
“If you called me into the office for suspension, I’d want someone there — probably a lawyer,” Bradford said at the meeting.
Weber clarified state statute does not require a parent to be present during an informal hearing and they have no right to appeal short-term suspensions. He added the board’s current policy actually goes beyond the state law by ensuring a student is not sent home without notification to a parent.
Superintendent Charles Foust explained the current informal process that occurs after a behavioral incident: The student can tell their side of the story and provide witnesses, who are then interviewed. Once a decision to suspend a student is made, the administrator attempts to reach the parents or guardians, who can request a conference about the suspension.
Principals at the Tuesday meeting noted the conferences sometimes result in a reversing of a suspension.
“I don’t know that we would be able to get everyone in to have a conversation with every time a child has to be sent … home,” Foust said, questioning what would happen thereafter if parents or guardians didn’t show.
Bradford did not have an answer for how to handle it and the language was removed from the policy proposal.
The board also made changes to the policy on board committees, removing the requirement of a liaison between the NCSBA and the district.
“This is part of our responsibility as members of the board, not just one person,” Barnhart said. “I would like the whole board to be on the hook, if you will.”
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com.
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