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During tense meeting, NHC school board votes 5-2 to censure member Judy Justice

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WHQR
Board Member Judy Justice on January 14th, 2022.

On Friday, the New Hanover County school board voted to censure Judy Justice 5 to 2, with Justice and Stephanie Walker dissenting.

The violation in question was whether Justice disclosed confidential personnel information of district staff. Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill said a verdict to censure would show the district protects the rights of their employees and upholds their code of ethics, in particular policy 2120.

Kraybill mentioned that Justice's alleged actions are in violation of general statutes surrounding the confidentiality of matters discussed in closed sessions.

Justice started the hearing by calling it a "witch hunt,” a "waste of time,” a "personal vendetta,” and ultimately an attempt to "silence her".

“I feel I did not violate anyone’s legal rights. I feel that the board needs to be more cohesive, and we need to focus on the real problems going on,” said Justice. One specific problem she mentioned was keeping the district safe during the omicron wave.

In her opening defense statement, Justice read a list of 10 incidents where board members and/or the superintendent had violated the ethics code for their positions. She also said she did not violate any state statutes.

Justice said evidence of these incidents can be found through documentation and media coverage. Some of the points she cited were not investigating incidents of teachers and/or staff sexually assaulting students and the selection system for the former Forest Hills Spanish Immersion program.

She also alleged that backroom deals were done with some members of the board and the superintendent so that schools would open in December 2020 in exchange for teacher bonuses.

Being left out of important decisions, being the target of gossip by other members, and being called a "liar" were some other accusations brought forth by Justice. She also said she was unfairly removed from the board's policy committee.

During these statements, Justice didn't direct accusations at any specific board members but became more specific with her criticism of the superintendent on the last incident: she said that Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust had accused her of "harassing him" when Justice said she was really asking him to do his job professionally.

She said that Foust could not provide any evidence to show that she was "so-called harassing him."

But Foust responded, “I will provide emails if that’s what you want; you cannot, you cannot do that,” said Foust. He cited that he had 275 emails that prove her "harassment".

Justice then said to the public, “Well, he refuses to communicate with me and at least one other board member, that’s a violation of 2010.”

2010 is the policy that oversees relations between the board and the superintendent.

[Editor’s note: In an interview after the hearing, Justice disputed Foust's claims, saying, “he’s lucky if he’s gotten two dozen from me over the last two years — none of them harassing him, only asking him to do his job. And lately he hasn’t answered any of my emails.” Justice said that concerned her because she was trying to ask questions on behalf the public.]

Board attorney Colin Shive warned her: “Ms. Justice, I believe we’re skating on thin ice, here.” Shive also said, along with Kraybill, that most of her defense was not "germane" to the topic of her censure.

Justice disagreed that she was being "singled out" and other board members had committed similar violations of what she was being accused of, which was her reason for reciting the list of 10 incidents.

Shortly after this exchange, Kraybill asked to take a brief recess.

When they returned, Justice finished her statement by saying that this whole public hearing was an attempt to silence her for wanting transparency and accountability in the district. She added, "We can all learn and grow, and we all make mistakes."

Before the board censured Justice, Walker said she was tired of the board’s constant bickering and personal attacks: "It's been pretty tough. I'm personally tired of it. I am tired of the personal stuff — I want to get back to serving the public."

But members Nelson Beaulieu and Stefanie Adams gave forceful statements saying that Justice undeniably released confidential information and should be held accountable.

Beaulieu said, "I'm here for our staff, and her actions hurt one of our staff."

For Adams, she said Justice's list of grievances was deflecting away from her own behavior: "You violated our staff's personnel rights. I've never done this. We need to set a higher standard, and your actions were a gross violation of them."

It is unclear whether Justice will be removed from committee assignments as a result of the censure.

Editor's note: WHQR reached out to the district to confirm whether there will be penalties for Justice, but has yet to receive a response.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR