Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Former Trustee Ray Funderburk files civil suit against CFCC Board

This is a report from WHQR, Port City Daily’s media partner, regarding the lawsuit of a former CFCC Board of Trustee. (Courtesy photo)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The filing details the history of CFCC President Jim Morton’s rise to power at the college and what led up to the removal of Ray Funderburk from his position as a trustee. 

CFCC Trustee Jonathan Barfield’s prediction may be coming true — that the March removal of former Trustee Ray Funderburk III from his seat by the trustees could open the college up to a costly lawsuit.

On Friday, June 2, Funderburk filed a complaint in Superior Court against the Board of Trustees of Cape Fear Community College members Bill Cherry (chair), Jason McLeod (vice-chair), Zander Guy, Bruce Shell, Bruce Moskowitz, Lanny Wilson, Paula Sewell, and Bill Rivenbark.

They were the nine votes that ultimately vacated Funderburk’s seat.

Funderburk, through his attorney Gary Shipman of Shipman & Wright, LLP, are claiming that his state constitutional rights (mainly Article I) were violated in terms of his right to due process, property/liberty, and free speech.

Funderburk claims that he did in fact discharge his duties as trustee — and that during his March hearing, those nine trustees disparaged his reputation by outlining false charges against him in a public forum. Those included the allegation that Funderburk asked instructor Alvin Coleman (who wasn’t named during the hearing) to change a student’s grade — and the claim that he disparaged CFCC’s reputation during a Black History Month event.

Funderburk’s suit also claims these allegations might “seriously damage his standing and association in the community, foreclose employment opportunities or otherwise impose a stigma.”

The suit argues the removal process was inherently unfair, in that before his March removal hearing, Cherry, McLeod, and board attorney Ken Gray had over a month to prepare the allegations against him for a quasi-judicial proceeding, while he was put on notice and asked to gather evidence in less than 48 hours.

Funderburk is asking for at least $25,000 in damages — and payment for his attorneys’ fees.

Funderburk speaks after filing

These damages, according to Funderburk, are “not meant to cripple Cape Fear Community College, but it’s to bring light to how they’re running that college.”

He added that he doesn’t understand how Morton continues to get significant raises, and “no one is questioning it, and I don’t understand why they’re [the board] so captivated by the man.”

Funderburk said that because he expressed his opinions during his tenure, because he questioned Board Chair Bill Cherry and Morton’s decisions, there was a “concerted effort to either silence or remove me.”

In essence, according to him, the board did this through “a campaign that was untrue.”

He added, “I didn’t do anything to try to change someone’s grade. And they made it look that way without any real evidenceAnd I spoke up, which is protected by my First Amendment rights in this country. So someone needs to take them to task, which is why I’m doing the suit.”

What’s new in the complaint

In the complaint, Funderburk and his attorney argue that if former Dean of CFCC’s General Education and Sciences Lynn Criswell, whose position was recently terminated at the end of May, and CFCC instructor Alvin Coleman were allowed to give testimony at Funderburk’s March hearing it would have debunked allegations made against Funderburk.

Pressed on the lack of direct evidence, McLeod would later claim that while Funderburk didn’t come out and ask for a grade change — he did insinuate one.

Funderburk has strongly denied this, saying he spoke to Coleman about the college’s policies for preparing dual-enrollment students for the rigors of college classes — not about changing a student’s grade. Funderburk’s complaint notes that Coleman told him Criswell could best answer these questions — so Funderburk followed up with her, meaning she could have testified to the nature of his conversations.

The complaint also mentions that two other “mid-level” CFCC administrators, who are so far unnamed, witnessed the conversation about CFCC policies between Criswell and Funderburk, noting that they could possibly be called on to corroborate that there was no discussion of a grade change on Funderburk’s part.

The complaint also details a call that Vice President of Student Services Sabrina Terry made to Criswell, asking if she thought Funderburk’s conversation with Coleman was a FERPA violation. Criswell said, “No, because there was no discussion about any specific student,” supporting the claim that Funderburk was asking about policy, not a grade.

It also states that Vice President of Academic Affairs Brandon Gutherie also interviewed Criswell and Coleman — and that they, too, told him the conversations were mainly about policy and not a grade change.

The complaint also takes issue with allegations against Funderburk for speaking his views publicly at CFCC’s Black student forum. During the March hearing, McLeod claimed that several unnamed staff members were “offended” by Funderburk’s comments — but provided no direct evidence or testimony.

In sum, Funderburk and his lawyer claim that evidence was withheld from the public and that McLeod, Cherry, and Gray were allowed to control the flow of evidence for the March hearing; hence, creating an “impartial tribunal”

Background information in complaint

In the complaint, allegations 15-31 detail President Jim Morton’s rise to power under unusual circumstances. It also details how Morton’s close relationship with current Board Chair Bill Cherry evolved at the Wilmington International Airport even before Cherry became his boss.

The complaint also alleges that trustees pressured former college President Amanda Lee to hire Morton, and eventually pushed her to resign under threat of being fired — clearing the way for Morton’s hire as president (after key job requirements had been removed, and without a public search).

The complaint also covers Morton and Chief of Staff Michelle Lee’s creation of alleged toxic work environmenthis failure to conduct a third-party survey in the wake of those allegations, and the college’s preference to have Robby Collins retain his seat over Funderburk. It further covers Funderburk’s dissenting vote on Morton’s raise in July 2022 and his dissent over former New Hanover County Commission Chair Julia Olson-Boseman’s removal of former Trustee CFCC Jimmy Hopkinshis questioning of the changes to the Cape Hatteras ship crew’s compensatory leave policy, which prompted the captain to resign.

The complaint also details several occasions on which Cherry told Funderburk not to speak to the “liberal media.”

As for next steps, that will be for the lawyers and the courts to decide, but Funderburk maintains that his wanting to be a part of the CFCC board was about supporting the education community.

“I saw the advertisement for the trustee and wanted to serve, that’s all. And as a result of wanting to serve and asking questions, and speaking my mind, I was defamed. They blackened my name in public. […]. And if disagreements get someone thrown off a board, what do we have boards for? If everybody’s thinking the same thing, then no one’s thinking.”

The college has no comment on this pending legal matter.

WHQR also reached out to New Hanover County Commission Chair and Trustee Bill Rivenbark. He has yet to respond.

Follow the reporting on Funderburk’s tenure here.

[Ed. note: This is a report from WHQR, Port City Daily’s media partner]

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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