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New Hanover County Schools gets fourth chief communications officer in two years

The dais of the New Hanover County Board of Education.
Benjamin Schachtman
Speaking for the New Hanover County Schools district is a tough job.

Much of the district's administration has stabilized since a mass exodus in 2019 and 2020 — but the lead role in the communication department has continued to see turnover.

On Monday, New Hanover County Schools announced that Joshua Smith, who previously worked as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Marine Corps, had been hired as the district’s new chief communication officer. Smith is the fourth person to hold the position over the last two years.

Smith replaces Michelle Fiscus, who served for less than two months, from April 12 to June 2 of this year. Before Fiscus, Ann Gibson held the role for just less than a year, from March 9 2020 to February 26, 2021.

Valita Quattlebaum served considerably longer, taking the position in November of 2013 and serving until 2019, when she stopped handling communications, but stayed on the district payroll until September of 2020.

Longtime media coordinator Brandon Shope, who helped provide some continuity for public records requests and other media inquiries in-between communication officers, also recently left NHCS; Shope took over the communication specialist position at the Wilmington Police Department.

Fiscus could not be reached for comment. After deciding to leave the district, Gibson said she was choosing to move to be closer to her family during the pandemic. During her time in limbo, Quattlebaum did not respond to requests for comment.

Quattlebaum’s slow departure coincided with a series of revelations about former teacher and convicted child abuser Michael Earl Kelly, a slew of resignations — including Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday former Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources John Welmers, Director of Human Resources Robin Meiers, and General Counsel Wayne Bullard — and the contentious $226,000 separation agreement with Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley.

More on this from Port City Daily: Between public ‘separations’ and quiet resignations, half of NHCS’s top administration is gone
The district has seen no shortage of public crises since then, including rancorous debates over closing — and then reopening — schools during Covid-19 and, more recently, debates over the teaching of equity and diversity (labeled ‘critical race theory’ by opponents) and the passage of a transgender athlete policy allowing middle school students to compete as whichever gender with which they identify.

NHCS's new Chief Communication Officer Joshua Smith.
NHCS's new Chief Communication Officer Joshua Smith.

Despite the considerable challenges faced by past chiefs of communication, the administration appears to have high hopes for Smith.

“Joshua Smith is an experienced communication professional and an outstanding addition to our leadership team. I am looking forward to Mr. Smith leading the district’s Communications Division while utilizing his extensive background to engage with all of our community stakeholders,” NHCS Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust wrote in a statement released today.

According to NHCS, ”Smith brings a wealth of experience leading strategic communications, public affairs, and training activities in the U.S. Marines. He has been a branch head over communications strategy at headquarters in Washington, DC for the last two years, after serving as a public affairs officer, instructor, and the Director of Communications Strategy for the 22nd Expeditionary Unit at Camp Lejeune, NC, between 2010-2019.”

Smith officially starts work on Monday, June 28.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.