NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Julia Olson-Boseman took the last several minutes of Monday’s board of commissioners meeting to rebuke a recently censured member of the school board.
The New Hanover County chair condemned Judy Justice for continuing to accuse the commissioners of making a “backroom deal” over a year ago now. The allegations that the county agreed to fund bonuses for teachers in exchange for the district to reopen elementary schools in December 2020 brought into question the officials’ transparency and the newly hired superintendent’s leadership.
“I’m a firm believer that it’s none of my business what other people think of me,” Olson-Boseman said. “But as I have the privilege to sit here in the middle of these fine people, it is my business what people say about y’all, and I am extremely disturbed that we have a school board member, Judy Justice, who has accused all of us of backroom dealing, and I believe another member agreed with it.”
Though the drama can come across as petty, it’s a showcase of the mounting pressure between the two boards, with millions of dollars at stake. Commissioners have great power over how the school system is funded. However, the district is slated to receive and spend nearly $99 million in Covid-19 relief funds from the state and federal government in the coming years — and commissioners have at times been critical of how New Hanover County Schools is budgeting.
So much so that the chair, without objection from her colleagues, has suggested cutting back on local school funding, which was just raised substantially in the current budget year. By effectively passing a tax increase, the county raised per-pupil spending from $2,907 to $3,434 and more than doubled local teacher stipends from $4,183 to about $9,000.
Monday, Olson-Boseman turned to a county attorney and told her she wished there was “something that we could do” about Justice’s accusations. Then she indicated to the county manager she wanted to be more stringent when financing the school system.
“Chris, the only thing that I can think, you know, be a little more diligent,” Olson-Boseman said. “I think we need to do more line item with the school board.”
The commissioners are holding their first work session for next year’s budget Thursday, Feb. 3.
The accusations of “backroom dealing” stem from the height of the Covid-19 school reopening debates. Before the start of the 2021 spring semester, the superintendent met with county leadership in a private meeting. Subsequently, in its first public meeting with two newly sworn-in commissioners, county officials approved $750 bonuses for all 3,400 school district employees. Immediately afterward, the commissioners unanimously pledged their support for the full reopening of elementary schools.
At the time, students of all grade levels were learning from home three days a week. Middle and high schools could not reopen for five-day-a-week, in-person instruction under the governor’s order, but elementary schools could.
When the school board met the next day, they matched the bonuses for staff. Then superintendent Charles Foust presented a plan to reopen elementary schools fully, even though he said the month prior he opposed doing so at the current rates of Covid-19 spread. His change of heart came as a surprise to the public, especially since the written proposal for reopening the schools was vaguely listed as a “transition plan,” with no accompanying documentation on the agenda.
The board of education members, the majority of whom had just been sworn in hours earlier, approved the transition 5-2. Within an hour, an invitation went out to the press about a joint news conference between the commissioners and school board the following morning about the bonuses and reopening, which contributed to growing suspicions it was pre-arranged.
Ultimately, the board of education backtracked on its decision before elementary schools were supposed to reopen under “Plan A” due to rising Covid-19 case numbers. Expressing her displeasure, Olson-Boseman called off a scheduled joint meeting between the two boards.
“If you remember, they didn’t go back to school when the commissioners wanted them to so that was not a very good deal if that’s what she thinks,” Olson-Boseman said through chuckles during Monday’s meeting. “Yeah, that’s not even close.”
Justice, a three-year board member, has described these events as an arranged backroom deal that led to the superintendent “intentionally springing” the reopening plans on the tired and confused newcomers to the board late in the night. It was around 11 p.m. when they took the vote.
Before Justice’s recent censure on Jan. 14, the school board had also taken a vote of no confidence against her over the summer. There was a list of reasons why she was being condemned, but it was in part because of her accusations that Foust violated policy by meeting with county leaders and not notifying all board members.
According to the vote-of-no-confidence resolution, the district had to issue a statement to “correct” the allegations.
Justice did not retract her statements at the vote-of-no confidence meeting and maintained her stance during the censure this month.
During the hearing, Justice could not speak to the personnel issue behind the censure and defended herself by reading off other ways she believed the board had broken policy, including the so-called backroom deal.
“Now that’s speculative, some people say,” Justice said during her defense. “I look at actions, not words.”
An unnamed commissioner also recently returned to the schools’ Covid-related debates when she provided board member Pete Wildeboer a statement to share during a Jan. 4 discussion on mask protocols.
“Think about alternatives to masking,” Wildeboer said, reciting the comments. “Free rapid tests in schools, which the county commissioners are also doing, or at least wait for health professionals to weigh in on this after their morning meeting on January 18. If not, you will be acting as health professionals, and that is easily challenged as none of you are. Just some food for thought.”
Board member Stefanie Adams asked which commissioner he was quoting, but Wildeboer declined to disclose who “she” was.
“The county commissioners have their responsibilities,” Adams said. “Our responsibility is the school system and making sure that we are making the best decisions for our students.”
The school district’s mask mandate was reimplemented that night.
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