NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A discussion that made people fear the school board would stifle their chances to speak at meetings evolved Tuesday night into the prospect of more public comment opportunities in the future.
New Hanover County Schools is now looking to hold three town halls a year for the sole purpose of hearing from stakeholders — uninterrupted — for two hours. More voices will be heard and likely a more diverse set of perspectives, but it may not address the deep-rooted issues behind why there’s such a high demand for public comment time slots to begin with.
In recent months, the school board’s 30 available slots for its call to the audience have filled up within minutes of the online sign-up opening at 8 a.m. the day before the meeting. The call to the audience is the designated one-hour period each month during which members of the public receive up to two minutes to address the board of education. The officials only listen and cannot respond to those at the podium.
A debate over how the New Hanover County Board of Education should handle the call to the audience has emphasized how many issues of public interest relating to the school district have piled up. Between its sex-abuse-riddled past and emerging demands — such as greater minimum wages and a solution to disproportionate suspension rates — the number of people pleading for progress has multiplied. It has resulted in longer meetings, sometimes drawing out business late into the evening.
“The more we don’t do, the more people listen and come in,” board member Judy Justice said Tuesday night. “It started off with one or two about suspension for the small ones. Now look at the numbers. We’ve got to address these problems.”
During each call to the audience, familiar faces often speak to familiar issues. Sometimes groups don the same custom T-shirts in recognition of their causes.
“The thing about public comment, it’s going to ebb and flow,” three-year board member Stefanie Adams said. “It’s been insane for the past year. For a couple months, it wasn’t like that. When there were issues like redistricting, we were full. It depends on the issues.”
In her new reign as board chair, Stephanie Kraybill recently proposed the idea of a lottery system, where speakers are awarded time by random selection rather than the order in which they sign up. Kraybill said she heard concerns from people about not being able to secure a spot before they were all filled.
The discussion first came up during January’s policy committee meeting, which was streamed on YouTube. Pushback spiraled on social media in the following days.
“Everything that we say has power,” Justice said, speaking to the public’s reaction. “This suggestion about a lottery — people went a little nuts.”
Kraybill was advised by the board attorney she could change the call to the audience procedures without full board approval but said she wanted to have a discussion with all members before implementing any changes. She clarified her intent was to ensure a diverse range of opinions was heard.
“It was not in any way, shape or form meant to limit people to talk to us,” Kraybill said.
NHCS offers one of the longer opportunities for public comment compared to other school districts, some of which only schedule 30 minutes or less. However, with a full hour of public comments and an hour-long closed session to go over lawsuits, the past five regular meetings have run past 9 p.m., sometimes nearing or exceeding 11 p.m.
Some people have asked to change the way call to the audience is conducted. Josie Barnhart, a candidate for the school board in 2022, said she signed up herself and two other people online in January. Upon arrival at the meeting, she found out they were not on the list. Barnhart said she was told there was a “glitch” and was able to get back on the list. When she got to the podium, she criticized the queue system.
“First come, first serve gives precedence to an individual who has the first ‘click’ to sign up,” Barnhart wrote to Port City Daily Thursday. “Increasing opportunity to hear from the public is needed, so I enjoy the idea of having a separate call to the audience where individuals can speak, and the fact that it will be more time should encourage a range of community speakers.”
The board of education members did not move forward with a lottery system. They did discuss possibly changing the sign-up start time to ensure teachers who are working at 8 a.m. don’t miss the opportunity to register, and they also floated the idea of raising the number of sign-ups available at the door from five to 10 people.
Board member Pete Wildeboer put forth the idea of holding the three town halls each year dedicated to public comment.
“All we do for that time is we listen to our folks,” he emphasized.
The policy committee plans to iron out details in an upcoming meeting. The listening sessions will likely take place in March, July and September, and people would sign up to address the school board at the door.
Peter Rawitsch, who speaks at every call to the audience on suspensions, said he is glad the board is not pursuing a lottery. He indicated other issues with the board meetings should be priorities, such as its meetings being at the same time as Wilmington City Council and the members entering a one-hour closed session 30 minutes or an hour into the meeting, leaving the audience to wait.
“They were excited to talk about a lottery and town hall meetings last night, but they have yet to resolve many important issues that the community has brought before them month after month,” Rawitsch said.
He pointed to the requested ban on out-of-school suspensions for 4-, 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds and raising the pay of classified staff to $17 an hour — both issues Kraybill brought up as examples when posing the lottery idea initially.
“We need to solve some of these problems and quit ignoring them — not ignoring them, putting them down the road. You can’t keep kicking them down the road,” Justice said at Tuesday’s meeting. “They’re not going to disappear. They’re obviously huge to the public, and I don’t think changing sign-ups or anything else is going to change the fact that we need to do our job.”
Nelson Beaulieu disagreed with Justice’s sentiments.
“You know, it’s hard to see what we’ve done, but I’m not gonna sit here and let us say, ‘Well, our staff isn’t doing anything. We’re not listening,’” Beaulieu said. “That’s not the case.”
To address teacher assistants’ pay, the school system is conducting a salary study, which should inform the staff how to raise wages. It would then take time to identify the funding sources and execute the changes. NHCS is also using $225,000 in Covid-19 relief funds to create 10 two-year scholarships and 10 one-year scholarships for teaching assistants with degrees to earn a license to become teachers.
It’s not exactly what TAs have asked for while standing at the podium, but the superintendent says raising the minimum wage to $17 an hour successfully would cost an estimated $10 million a year. He’s stood by his statements that it is unfeasible to achieve higher rates through non-recurring dollars; the district has received a nearly $99 million allotment in Covid-19 relief funds, the majority of which is from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).
The finance staff is recommending $4.3 million in leftover ESSER funds be set aside for bonuses next year. However, the board could dip into the reserve this year if agreed upon.
The Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee has taken up discussions about reducing suspensions, but there’s yet to be any concrete action.
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