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NHC school board hosts fall town hall

NHCS Town Hall, September 20, 2022
Rachel Keith
NHCS Town Hall, September 20, 2022

At Tuesday’s New Hanover County school board town hall about 50 residents showed up to speak on or listen to a variety of topics such as issues with transportation, staff morale, and racism.

The meeting commenced with each of the seven board members answering pre-submitted questions from the community.

Accusations of racism

After that, they took questions from about 20 people in the audience. Two of them were parents of Black children who said they had suffered incidences of racism while attending New Hanover County Schools.

One mother, Montrina Melvin, said recently her son, who attends Noble Middle School, was both hit and called the ‘n-word’ by another student last week. Melvin claimed the school didn’t discipline the student.

Additionally, a former district parent, who did not publicly give her name and requested anonymity, said her child used to attend a New Hanover County school but pulled him out to attend private school after he was targeted because of his race. She even said her son was made to play a game of “master and slave.” She cried during the retelling of the event.

Rebecca Trammel, who is a community activist, was also at the town hall. She said the two women were brave to share their stories.

“It is not easy to stand in a room of people and talk about something that happened that’s so personal, and painful. And sometimes that's the first step of what needs to happen, the first step to solving a problem is hearing about what the problem is,” said Trammel.

Trammel added, “What I really want to know is, at one point will we consider professional consequences for inaction in racially charged situations? And at what point are we going to develop a policy that protects children from racism?”

The board apologized to both women. Board Member Nelson Beaulieu said there are local, state, and federal policies in place to prevent discrimination – and a process to deal with student misbehavior.

Beaulieu also said they’ve recently hired an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer – and have an EDI Committee – and staff receives implicit bias training.

Kraybill said to Melvin, “the board doesn’t get involved in disciplinary actions,” and that she needed more details on the situation. “It wouldn’t be prudent of us to give advice, but we are encouraging you to go back to your school, and if that isn’t working, you call Dr. Foust (superintendent) or Julie Varnam (assistant superintendent of student services), because I don’t want to jeopardize anything that you need to do when it comes to what’s right for your child.”

Staff freedom of speech

Kristina Mercier, former teacher and president of the New Hanover County Association of Educators, also spoke during the town hall. She claimed that there is “retaliation” if teachers or staff speak up at board meetings, herself included. Mercier didn’t say who would retaliate, though.

“I guess that talking at a school board meeting is the same as talking to the media. What can you do as a board to get to the people? What can we do to get our employees here and make them [feel] welcome?” said Mercier.

Beaulieu said, “Nobody should ever be retaliated against in New Hanover County Schools.”

Vice Chair Stephanie Walker agreed, “Retaliation should not happen. Intimidation should not happen, you have a right as a constituent to come to these meetings, and if it happens, please let us know.”

Member Hugh McManus said, “I hope we’re approachable,” but added, “I want to make sure people understand you can appeal everything that happens to you personnel-wise, but we don't know what's going on until that’s done in closed session, so you have a right to appeal.”

The district does have a process for employees to follow if there is a grievance against the school district.

Further, the host for the evening, Chief Communications Officer Josh Smith, who doesn’t typically answer questions during the town hall, interjected to say, “The policy was updated several months ago, New Hanover County Schools is open to the media, no employee is restricted from talking to the media at any time, it's codified in policy, the board passed it several months ago, so I just want to make that point of clarification.”

Board decorum

One audience member, Jody Greenwood, said to the board, “Y’all’s tone with each other, y’alls body language with each other is unhealthy – like most working environments, we don’t get to choose our colleagues, but we do get to choose how we work with one another, so how will each of you commit to [working with] one another moving forward?”

McManus said the members needed to be “present” with each other – and to not be “curt” or a “smartass” and to not let the past dictate their current interactions. But Board Member Judy Justice said, “there’s a lot of history with this current board.”

Kraybill pledged to answer each board member’s emails and calls, and not block anyone’s number. She added that she’s willing to “talk it out with anyone who is willing.”

Walker said because of “politics not everyone is here for the same reason, which is frustrating, but I promise I will do my best for this county and this staff in this district.”

Beaulieu admitted he could at times be “cranky” but he said he believes everyone on the board does what they think is best for the district’s students.

Post town hall thoughts from Chair Kraybill

Kraybill said she commends the board for having an open discussion with constituents.

“Taking unfiltered questions that you get and trying to process that quickly without being able to look across the room at the senior staff, I think it’s a testimony to the fact that we all are really trying to understand,” said Kraybill.

“So town halls really aren't meant to be, ‘come and air your grievances', but if you feel like that's the only way you're going to get heard, then okay, we have to start the conversation,” said Kraybill.

But she did say district staff were watching the meeting online – and would be following up on concerns that were presented during the town hall.

But to her, the main purpose of the school board is to relay concerns to Central Office.

“We have to take what we’re hearing here and take that to the school system – and let the school system manage it – and that’s what we pay the superintendent for – and that to me is the biggest issue that our board has,” said Kraybill.

She said this was the final town hall for this year – and “looks forward to a fresh board,” after the election on November 8.

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