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From dysfunctional to non-functional: New Hanover school board loses control of meeting, flees into recess

The Tuesday, July 13 meeting of the New Hanover County Board of Education descended into chaos.
New Hanover County Schools district
The Tuesday, July 13 meeting of the New Hanover County Board of Education descended into chaos.

New Hanover County Board of Education meetings have seen no shortage of tense moments. But this week, things got worse when board members lost control to a rowdy audience — and then brought the meeting to an abrupt halt.

The agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting was packed with important, and in some cases controversial, items. These included a host of interlocal agreements and policies, including new guidance on how the school handles law enforcement questioning of students.

Also up for debate, a potential conflict of interest, involving the same attorney representing both the school board and the board’s insurance company — which some have argued should have different goals, particularly in ongoing civil suits of child sexual abuse by former employees.

And, of course, there was a packed house — people ready to speak out on a range of issues, from elementary school suspensions to critical race theory.

But the board never got to those issues because — before even starting the call to the audience — the crowd began to overpower vice-chair Nelson Beaulieu, who was leading the meeting in the absence of Chair Stefanie Adams (who was on vacation).

In fact, it was a discussion of Adams that helped set the abrasive tone of the evening: minutes into the meeting, board members took a deadlocked vote over whether to reprimand Adams in some way for her actions last week, when she had speaker Chris Sutton removed during the call to the audience. Sutton turned his back on the board to address the audience; Adams claimed this violated policy. Sutton is currently considering a 1st Amendment lawsuit.

Notably, the incident was omitted from the draft minutes of last month's meeting. All present board members voted in favor of correcting that oversight. Board members Judy Justice, Stephanie Walker, and Pete Wildeboer voted to hold Adams responsible in some way for the incident, while Beaulieu, Stephanie Kraybill, and Hugh McManus voted against (Adams, presumably, would have voted against if she had been present).

The board then turned to the call to the audience section of the meeting. Despite Beaulieu’s attempt to limit the evening’s call to the audience to 30 speakers, board member Judy Justice led a vote to extend the public comment section to allow everyone who had signed up — 50 speakers. The crowd celebrated, but things started to slide out of control.

“We need to listen to them, that’s why they came and I respect their rights…they’ve been here for hours, some of them,” Justice said.

When the crowd shouted complaints that the board did not respond to emails or phone calls, Beaulieu gaveled the crowd, shouting, “Sir, you are out of order! Please maintain some level of decorum, this is not a battle zone, this is a Board of Education meeting.”

As the meeting progressed, the crowd grew increasingly loud, openly shouting insults and even obscenities at board members and each other. One speaker gave a deranged defense of slavery. Several physical confrontations took place outside, and at least one person was temporarily handcuffed by Sheriff’s deputies, though later released.

Twice, Beaulieu took the board off the dais for a break — at one point shouting, " shouted over the crowd: “Enough! Enough! We are going to take a break, we are taking a break," over the crowd. But the attempt to try and lower the temperature was to no avail.

Finally, in a frantic vote, the board recessed itself to next Tuesday. As the crowd continued to shout, several board members hurried from the dais, heading to their cars.

Editor's note: The meeting will resume Tuesday, July 20, 2021, at 5:30 p.m. remotely. It's not clear at this time when or if the board will resume public in-person meetings.

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.