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Here's why the New Hanover school board is voting on Sophic Solutions' contract, weeks after it was cancelled


In December, board members apparently agreed the education consulting company's services were no longer needed, especially given the recent hire of a new DEI chief. So, the contract was cancelled — but then things got a little more complicated.

Sophic Solutions was engaged by Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust in February of last year; the $17,000 contract was for an equity audit of the district. In July, Foust approved a new $26,000 contract for additional diversity, equity, and inclusivity training. Both contracts fell well below the $300,000 fiscal threshold for spending without board approval and were approved solely by Foust's office ad discretionary spending.

Then, in November, Foust selected Deputy Superintendent Dr. LaChawn Smith to fill the newly created position of Chief of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion — a role recommended in Sophic's equity audit report.

According to board member Stephanie Walker, this eventually led to conversations between her, Smith, and fellow board member Hugh McManus. The question was whether Sophic's services were still needed. Walker said she consulted a majority of other board members and then informed Smith that the contract was to be terminated.

'No longer necessary'

In a December 21, 2021 email, Walker wrote to Foust, Smith, and McManus — CC'ing Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill — to explain their reasoning.

Ben Schachtman

"After much discussion with members of the Board, and especially in light of our current budgeting conversations, we believe it is no longer necessary to retain the services of Sophic Solutions. Additionally, we now have a Chief Equity Officer on staff, who is fully capable of fulfilling the same duties," Walker wrote.

Walker asked Foust and Smith to give Sophic Solutions 30 days of notice and noted that the board was "very appreciative" of the company's work, notably the equity audit.

After the holidays, Smith notified Sophic Solutions. On January 4, 2022, two days before officially stepping into the role of chief equity officer, Smith emailed Rodney and Stephenie Smith, the owners of Sophic Solutions:

"This letter is to inform you that as of January 31, 2022, New Hanover County Schools will no longer require the services of Sophic Solutions.

The school system appreciates the support and services that Sophic Solutions has provided but as the result of internal discussions, we have decided to terminate our contract with you.

All outstanding deliverables should be completed before our contract is officially terminated. Please send us any pending invoices by 3/2/22 so that we can clear any outstanding amounts by 4/8/22."

No one on the board or in the administration appears to have contested Walker's original email or the decision to terminate Sophic Solutions' contract until the following week.

Reconsidering the decision

According to a NHCS spokesperson, on Monday, January 11, the district started receiving media requests — including from WHQR — for comment on reports that Sophic Solutions' contract had been ended. The district's 'cabinet-level' staff had also been discussing contractual procedures during its weekly meeting.

In response to WHQR's query, the district offered a statement from Chair Kraybill: "The New Hanover County Board of Education plans to discuss and vote on the district's contract with Sophic Solutions at the interim meeting on January 18, 2022. The vendor has been informed of the vote."

So, if the decision to terminate the contract had been made nearly a month before the date of the upcoming interim meeting, and Sophic Solutions' given notice of the termination the week before — why was the board planning a vote?

According to the district, staff notified Kraybill that — according to policy 2230 — any action of the board would require a vote of the full board, and advised her the issue should go on an upcoming agenda. That policy noted, in part, "[a] standing committee may only make recommendations to the board and has no authority to act on behalf of the board unless specifically authorized by law, board policy, or the board."

It's worth noting that, while Walker did advise Smith to cancel the Sophic Solutions contract board action was not needed to do so; since the contract was approved by Foust's office it could legally be ended by his office as well.

Kraybill did not respond to questions about the situation. She did, however, email the board on Monday evening:

"Fellow Board Members,

It seems we might need a clarification on the role of Board Committees.

Board Committees can only make recommendations to the Board for action per Policy 2230:

Therefore, it is the role of any Board Committee to a make recommendations to the entire Board so that the Board can discuss the issue and collectively decide/vote to accept or reject the recommendation(s).

“A standing committee may only make recommendations to the board and has no authority to act on behalf of the board unless specifically authorized by law, board policy, or the board.”

I hope this helps."

Member Judy Justice disagreed, writing, "that would be in the case that a contract was recommended. The EDI decided they did not want to recommend renewing the contract with Sophic Solutions, thus why bring it to the board? All you had to say to the press was that the EDI committee did not recommend a renewal, and then let the issue die its natural death. Now here we go again bringing attention to the board when it is not needed."

Smith, in her new role as Chief of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, is slated to present the issue to the board during its interim meeting next week; the meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, January 18, at 5 p.m. You can find the agenda for the meeting here.

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.