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Thursday, May 23, 2024

NHCSB members accuse Republican majority of ‘silencing’ them, meeting behind closed doors

nhcs
Board members Hugh McManus, Stephanie Walker and Stephanie Kraybill dissented to changes to the board’s code of ethics; the proposal would allow the board to remove a member from committee responsibilities per an ethical violation, such as making biased decisions or disrespecting board members. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Education took time on Tuesday to air out its dirty laundry that’s been accumulating since the November election. 

READ MORE: NHCSB members could be removed from committees for ethics violations, per draft policy amendment

Board members Hugh McManus, Stephanie Walker and Stephanie Kraybill dissented to changes to the board’s code of ethics; the proposal would allow the board to remove a member from committee responsibilities per an ethical violation, such as making biased decisions or disrespecting board members.

It was during this conversation that McManus claimed four members were meeting behind closed doors and that did not reflect well on the cohort. He stated he understands the group prays together before board meetings, but questioned whether that was the only action they were undertaking. 

Board chair Pete Wildeboer called the accusation “insulting.” He said the group, which includes Josie Barnhart, Melissa Mason and Pat Bradford, prays for board members, a good meeting and for the well-being of students.

“If prayer is wrong Mr. McManus, then we’re all in a lot of trouble,” Wildeboer said. 

However, Kraybill chimed in to add she knew of one instance where the board members were discussing other matters.

Port City Daily reached out to Kraybill for further information on the incident. 

“I do know of another time where 4 board members were discussing board business off the dais, but I am respectfully withholding comment until I have had a chance to speak personally (again) with the individuals involved,” Kraybill wrote in an email.

PCD also reached out to each of the accused board members. Barnhart was the only one to respond by press. 

“I do not participate in activities that violate open meeting laws, this would be unethical,” Barnhart wrote in an email. “The reason the chair was direct and discussion was closed was it clearly was an attempt to undermine integrity.” 

According to North Carolina’s open meeting laws, the public must be informed of any meeting of an elected body, along with the topics to be discussed. An official meeting occurs whenever a majority of the members of the public body — or quorum — gather together to take action, hold a hearing, deliberate, or otherwise transact the business of the body. 

Even if the body meets informally, discussion of business pertaining to the elected body triggers the statute.

Kraybill, McManus and Walker also decried the proposed changes to the code of ethics policy. The additions include two new tenets to the code, stating board members 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

The changes include the allowance of board member removal from committee assignments per majority vote. First violations would incur a ban of 90 days, then 180 days on second, then the remainder of their term thereafter.

Barnhart pointed out the board chair currently has sole authority to remove someone from a committee.

“This is allowing for the board to work together if there are individuals who are consistently violating policy,” Barnhart said.  

For the three board members, they said the measure was another attempt at “silencing” opposing views. Kraybill cited previous endeavors, mainly from Bradford, at “objecting” to motions to shut down debate. 

McManus insinuated the group were attempting to ice out the media. 

“When you silence the newspaper, the radio station — Pete goes on the radio, that’s his business,” McManus said. “I’m not mad at him because he does that. I may not agree with everything he says. We get to say what we feel. So the audience, you’re going to control them? You’re going to control the newspaper, the TV?”

Since the November election, some new members have rarely responded to Port City Daily requests for information or interviews. 

For incumbent and new board chair Pete Wildeboer, he has not returned a single request for comment since his reelection, despite frequently speaking with PCD before the election. 

Barnhart has responded to five out of seven PCD emails. During the same time period, Bradford did not respond to three emails; seven text messages were sent, five of which received no response or a decline. 

Six texts and four emails were sent to Mason, who responded to two and zero respectively. 

McManus has responded to both emails PCD sent and Kraybill has responded to two out of five. 

Walker responded to one of both emails and both texts. 

These numbers do not account for attempts to call board members, of which only McManus and Walker have been reached. 

At the Tuesday meeting, the board did not address responding to media, instead returned to discussing the policy. 

Kraybill said she felt the provision on removing board members was personal.

“I feel this policy is retaliatory toward me because I dare have the audacity to call out board members when they’re making misstatements,” Kraybill said. 

The former chair apologized to Wildeboer for speaking out of turn; she said there were two major incidents, both of which she and Wildeboer discussed after the incidents. 

Mason, who typically votes with her Republican colleagues, also dissented. While in favor of accountability, she said the changes were too drastic, preferring a more thorough process.

“We would have to be willing to accept that if it is turned against us that we would get those consequences,” Mason said.

In a 5-2 vote, McManus and Walker dissenting, the code of ethics was sent back to the police committee for further review.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article said the vote was 4-3 to send back to committee. It has been updated to the correct vote, 5-2.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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