Wednesday, May 25, 2022

School board candidates tackle hard-hitting questions in media town hall

Port City Daily joined WHQR and WECT in organizing a forum with school board candidates Tuesday night

WHQR news director Ben Schachtman emcees the New Hanover County Board of Education candidate forum at Cape Fear Community College Union Station. Port City Daily’s Alexandria Sands, WECT’s Michael Praats and WHQR’s Rachel Keith moderated.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — For the first time, all five Republican and five Democrat candidates in the 2022 New Hanover County Board of Education race joined at one table Tuesday night to talk about local education needs — from the classroom to the boardroom. The election hopefuls posed new ideas and criticized past and current leadership in a fight to win over voters.

Journalists with Port City Daily, WHQR and WECT — the organizers of the forum — curated unique questions for each candidate and then took questions from the public, covering a range of topics from a lack of discipline in schools to critical race theory to mental health.

Early voting opens Thursday for the May 17 primary election. Voters will choose four school board candidates from their registered party to move forward in the November general election. Those who are unaffiliated — more than a third of the voters in New Hanover County — will choose which party’s primary they want to cast a ballot for.

Of the 10 candidates, the one Republican and one Democrat with the least number of votes will fall out of the race.

READ MORE: New Hanover County Voting Guide

During the forum, most candidates seemed to agree the current board is “dysfunctional.” Discussions have turned tumultuous over the last year-and-a-half over the Title IX survey, placing conversation topics on the agenda, and obtaining funding from the county or hospital endowment, specifically for the purpose of raising teacher assistant pay.

The incumbents running for re-election spoke of the perception. Board member Nelson Beaulieu said he would take accountability for any time he lost his temper at a meeting but also promoted himself as a “consensus builder.”

“All of the good ideas that we’re going to hear about tonight from all of these candidates aren’t going to mean anything without steady and solid leadership at the top,” Beaulieu said in his opening statement.

Incumbent Democratic candidate Judy Justice — who has been censured and received a vote of no confidence from her fellow members — said she works with some members on the board without issue. She patted Pete Wildeboer on the shoulder as she spoke. Her Republican colleague pointed out he never raises his voice and prefers to keep the focus on students and the “big picture.”

“[People] say things about, ‘Well, why aren’t you yelling and screaming?’” candidate Wildeboer said. “Because I’m a professional.”

Justice indicated relationships at the dais improved after the 2020 election when fresh leadership came on with similar views as her and a desire to keep tabs on Superintendent Charles Foust’s actions.

“​​But I’m also working with people that don’t do that,” Justice said. “They don’t address it. And when I do, I get attacked, and that’s been very public.”

She blamed the former board’s lack of oversight over former Superintendent Tim Markley for the sex abuse scandals that were revealed in 2019.

“I know what that means to have oversight for a superintendent,” Justice said, citing her experience in multiple school districts. “I also know what good superintendents are. I know what adequate ones are. And I know a challenge when they have them. He has a challenge, a huge challenge, in this district, and he said he was capable of it when he came on board.”

When host and WHQR news director Ben Schachtman asked if Foust should resign, none of the candidates raised their hands. But none raised their hands when asked if they supported him “unconditionally” either. 

Foust recently came under fire for referencing his idea of a “bless your heart” curriculum — the idea that teachers do not push students to their full potential because of their home lives — when discussing segregation in the district’s schools.

RELATED: A decade ago, some predicted ‘neighborhood schools’ would leave Black children behind. It did

Republican Josie Barnhart, who has touted her experience in low-income schools, was asked directly about the concept. She said Foust chose his words poorly.

“As a leader, we don’t need to insult the people who are working with our kids day in and day out,” Barnhart said. “And I know how hard it is because I’ve worked at schools who are under review by the state. I worked with kids who are going to come into my classroom and flip a table at me before they can sit down for a lesson.”

She believes students can achieve greatness regardless of where they come from but added they may need some accommodations. Barnhart suggested NHCS review programs it has invested in and study their results.

Another talking point for both Barnhart and Republican Pat Bradford is the number of students who left NHCS during the pandemic. Bradford predicted the impacts of lost per-pupil funding won’t be evident right away because of the amount of federal Covid relief, but she stressed the importance of drawing back families.

“How do we bring the children back into the school? There’s only one way and that’s to make our schools excellent,” Bradford said. “When we’re losing students to homeschool, to charter schools, to private schools and dropping out.”

Barnhart said she supports school choice and wants NHCS to offer more of a selection, like year-round schools or vocational programs such as SEA-TECH, so families stay in the public school system. She said the district can train its students for skilled jobs, which would help fill staffing shortages.

Candidate Veronica McLaurin-Brown has sat in on school board meetings continuously for 13 months. “While I was attending the school board meetings, listening and watching — mostly from the front row seat — I saw many opportunities for our school board to do better, make better decisions for our children,” she said in her opening statement.

Democratic candidate Veronica McLaurin-Brown highlighted how schools need full staff and social workers to combat misbehavior, a rising concern since virtual learning replaced in-person schooling for months. McLaurin-Brown has spent the last year advocating for a change to the suspension policy. In April, the board voted unanimously to do away with out-of-school suspensions for students under 8, unless in extreme circumstances.

“When I worked on the advocacy to end suspensions, I worked every single day except Christmas and the day before Christmas,” McLaurin-Brown said. “I will bring that same work ethic to working on the board to make our school system better.”

She said administrators expressed to her that ending suspensions was feasible with the proper staffing and resources.

Jennah Bosch, a Democrat, is campaigning for more mental health and social workers. If elected, she said she wants to incorporate classes to teach students how to manage emotions, especially children who have been suspended or placed in seclusion rooms.

“We need to help these students — the young ones and the older ones — process these emotions in a positive way,” Bosch said. “Because if that doesn’t happen, these students are not going to be in school. They’re going to be labeled ‘problem children.’ They’re going to go to alternative schools. They’re gonna go in the juvenile justice system. They’re going to absolutely line that school-to-prison pipeline.”

Asked about volunteers, Republican Melissa Mason suggested implementing a Dads On Duty program, in which fathers establish a presence on campuses to curb potential bullying or violence. Safety and more school resource officers are a pillar of her platform.

Candidates were allowed to use part of their two-minute responses to respond to others. At two points candidates jumped on the opportunity to target a competitor. Chris Sutton, a Republican, challenged Beaulieu’s transparency and respect for constitutional rights. He said Beaulieu blocked the board from instituting a “transparency committee.” Wildeboer proposed the idea in a July meeting for a group to look into whether concerns about teaching critical race theory in classrooms were justified.

Sutton’s attack came after Beaulieu answered a question on the controversial subject and said parents should ask teachers about their lesson plans, then the district should be honest about the curriculum.

Nelson Beaulieu is running for a second term. “I don’t want to fight with anybody up there. I’m gonna fight with everyone up here to make sure that we’re fighting for students,” he said.

“It’s not enough to lazily say, ‘Look, we don’t teach CRT,’ because I don’t really think that that’s what people are talking about,” Beaulieu said. “I think they’re talking about a broader concern about what’s being taught in their child’s classroom. And I don’t see that as anything except healthy.”

CRT has emerged as a major political talking point nationwide. Mason, especially, addresses it in her campaign. She also says parents need to know if teachers are discussing their students’ gender identity or sexuality without their knowledge or consent, comparing this to “grooming.”

“W​​hen you talk about having this conversation with a child — a teacher and administrator, a counselor having this conversation with a child — and saying, ‘We don’t have to tell your parents,’ that sounds so very much like every grooming story we have ever heard in the history of grooming,” Mason said.

Beaulieu fought back on her description: “Words have power,” he said.

Beaulieu said former teacher Michael Kelly’s crimes were real grooming. Kelly was convicted of 59 counts of felony sex crimes against students in 2019.

Board members also took questions about sex abuse in schools and how to prevent a “cover-up” culture. Democrat Dorian Cromartie listed a few ideas: thoroughly vetting employees with fingerprinting; engaging a third party to comb through Ethix360 reports and handle complaints properly; and ensuring principals are honest about what is happening in their schools.

Chris Sutton posed the idea of a blue-collar role model program during his opening statement.

Sutton, who got involved in school board issues because he knows victims of Kelly, said if he was elected he would “give investigational powers back to the board.” He also wants to ensure public records requests are properly fulfilled in an appropriate time span and are not skewed.

There were also several points made about budgeting and fiscal responsibility throughout the night. Wildeboer suggested the board ensure at least 80% of funding is going into the classrooms, not the central office.

Sutton said money is wasted. As an example, he said the district engaged “change” consultants Sophic Solutions for an initial $17,000 contract. The agreement was renewed and then terminated by unsatisfied board members.

“Just to end up with kids clapping ‘equity is equality,’” he said. “That money could have went to actually helping kids in an equitable way.”

He also wants to cut down the amount of money the superintendent can spend without board approval and put it toward efforts like ending seclusion rooms.

Cromartie suggested the district employ grant writers.

“We pay too much money in taxes for our school system to not be delivering on our children’s dreams,” Cromartie said.

School board electees would join — or rejoin — Republican Stephanie Kraybill and Democrats Hugh McManus and Stephanie Walker. Democrat Stefanie Adams is not seeking another term.

[Ed. Note: Port City Daily, WHQR and WECT are holding a second forum for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners candidates on Tuesday, May 3, starting at 7 p.m. in Cape Fear Community College’s Union Station, 502 N. Front St. Submit a question here.]


Email the reporter at alexandria@localdailymedia.com

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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