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Incoming New Hanover School Board members will review ongoing lawsuits, reopening plans

Benjamin Schachtman
The New Hanover County Board of Education meets this week to swear in four new members.

On Tuesday evening, the New Hanover County Board of Education will swear in four new members. The new board will then head directly into some of the toughest issues currently facing the district, including the legal fallout from years of sexual abuse of students (both alleged and admitted) as well as the debate over how, and when, to fully reopen schools.

First, the four new board members will take their oaths of office. The board welcomes two new Democrats --- Stephanie Walker and Hugh McManus --- and two new Republicans --- Stephanie Kraybill and Peter Wildeboer. Wildeboer was nominated by the New Hanover County GOP’s executive committee to replace fellow Republican Bill Rivenbark, who resigned after winning a seat on the county’s Board of Commissioners.

The board will also recognize four outgoing members --- former Vice-Chair David L. Wortman, former Chair Lisa Estep, Jeannette S. Nichols, and newly-elected County Commissioner Bill Rivenbark. The departure of these members means the board has now completely broken from past iterations, with no member having yet served a full term (Judy Justice, Nelson Beaulieu, and current Chair Stefanie Adams were all elected in 2018).

As with Monday’s Board of Commissioners’ meeting, there will be votes for a new chair and vice-chair --- although it’s less clear who will end up holding the gavel; also like the commissioners, school board members have had several past disputes that did not fall neatly along party lines.


After swearing in the new board, members will head into closed session to discuss at least three lawsuits against the New Hanover County School (NHCS) district or its board (there is no legal difference between suing one or the other).

The first is a suit filed by Pender County NAACP President Dante Murphy against former NHCS general counsel Wayne Bullard and the Board of Education. Reverend Murphy alleges that Bullard’s filming of ‘call to the audience’ speakers using his smartphone constituted harassment and intimidation.

Because all school board meetings are already filmed with a two-camera setup, Bullard’s actions drew fire from several camps and at least one board member; a NHCS spokesperson later confirmed that district policy did not support filming from the board table, where Bullard sat during meetings. Bullard later resigned in protest. He has, to date, refused to comply with a public records request filed for his phone records, despite two letters from the district asking him to turn them over.

Murphy initially filed his claim for damages in small claims court in March and, after a magistrate dismissed it, appealed the case to District Court in August. In October, the Board of Education filed a memorandum supporting Bullard’s motion to dismiss the case. Early last month, Judge Chad E. Hogston again dismissed Murphy’s claims, citing a lack of evidence and a failure to demonstrate a violation of constitutional rights. This week, Murphy filed a notice of appeal.

The second case was filed by the law firms of attorneys Joel Rhine and Jim Lea on behalf of at least six ‘John Doe’ plaintiffs who allege sexual abuse by former teacher Michael Earl Kelly and that the district had evidence of Kelly’s behavior but took little or no action. The suit names the district, as well as former Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley and former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday as defendants --- all have denied wrongdoing in court filings. (Notably, Markley is still being defended by the district’s attorneys as part of his severance package while Holliday has retained his own counsel). Kelly himself admitted to dozens of counts of abuse, and is currently serving a 17-31 year sentence at the Pasquotank Correctional Institute in Elizabeth City.

The suit was filed in July of 2019, one month after Kelly’s plea hearing, during which Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan told the court that the district had investigated Kelly for sexual misconduct back in 2006 without contacting law enforcement, a violation of state law.

The third case, also filed by Lea and Rhine’s firms, is similar;it was filed in April of this year on behalf of the alleged female victims of Peter Michael Frank, the Roland Grise band teacher who was arrested in January. Frank is facing over two dozen felony charges and is currently being held in the New Hanover County detention center on a $500,000 secured bond. After Frank was arrested, a search warrant revealed personnel documents that showed Frank had been repeatedly ‘counseled’ for his ‘inappropriate relationships’ with students, dating back to at least 1999.

Both the Kelly and Frank lawsuits could become class-action suits, allowing more plaintiffs to join. At the same time, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation continues to investigate charges of failure to report and obstruction of justice by top NHCS administrators. Recently, WECT reported that outgoing New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White joined Murphy in calling on the SBI to update the public on its investigation.

Reopening 2021

Coming out of closed session, the board will discuss the latest on reopening schools, and are likely to factor in keen interest from the county commissioners.

Last Thursday, during a recently-reinstated agenda review, Chair Julia Olson-Boseman asked that a new agenda item be added for Monday’s meeting, a consideration of reopening elementary schools.

The additional item reads:

Data is showing that too many of our public school children are losing ground as a result of remote learning in response to COVID-19 pandemic. The school system is operating middle and high schools consistent with what is allowed by Governor Roy Cooper’s executive orders. The order also allows for school systems to use full-time, on-site learning for pre-k and all elementary grades up to 5th grade. The New Hanover County commission is interested in seeing all public elementary schools open for full-time, on-site learning beginning the second semester on January 11, 2021.

The county commission will discuss how it might further support the ongoing school operations during the pandemic and support the school board in reopening pre-k through 5th grade classrooms effective January 11, 2021.

While the Board of Education has no scheduled vote on a reopening plan and Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust has pushed back on efforts to rush going to ‘Plan-A,’ or full-time in-class instruction, without a decrease in Covid-19 numbers and the backing of health officials. However,  the additional ‘interest’ from county commissioners is likely, at the very least, to spur discussion of reopening starting in January. A central tension will be balancing safety concerns with the drastic increase in failing and struggling students, a trend associated with the difficulties of distance learning.

You can reach Benjamin Schachtman at Bschachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman