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NHC school board handles tough questions with an even keel during first town hall

Rachel Keith
Town Hall on July 19, 2022

On Tuesday, July 19, the New Hanover County School Board held a town hall where community members could ask them questions directly and they would answer during a two-hour period.

There were about 20 people in attendance – and the district’s Chief Communications Officer Josh Smith said there were hundreds of questions submitted beforehand.

Smith categorized the questions into 7 themes: curriculum, equity, bullying, overcrowding, school performance, school calendar, and school safety. During the event, board members rotated through responding to questions on these topics.

Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust was not in attendance, nor were district administrators. Smith explained their absence, saying this event was mainly for the board to respond to the community’s questions, as opposed to Foust or his staff, which is more in line with what occurs during typical board meetings.

Three school board candidates were also in attendance, Republican Pat Bradford and Democrats Dorian Cromartie and Veronica McLaurin-Brown. All three asked questions of the board.

The debate over banned books, curriculum

Board Member Judy Justice started the evening off by addressing concerns about classroom instruction. Justice said that parents can find out what their student is learning through the standard course of study on the Department of Public Instruction’s website.

“There’s no mystery to what we teach in the classrooms. Ask the teachers, call the school, call the media coordinator – they want parent involvement with their child’s academics,” said Justice. “No one is indoctrinating anyone.”

She followed up by saying that schools and teachers send out messages via phone, email, and the web about what kids are learning. Justice said there is not a lack of information as to what is going on within the classroom.

But two audience members during the evening accused the district of having pornographic materials in school libraries and asked whether the board could do something about it.

Justice responded by saying that she believed in the First Amendment and that typically if the teacher is reading a controversial book, they send a letter home to see if the parent wants their child to opt-out of the assignment for an alternative one. Board Member Hugh McManus agreed – parents can notify the principal about objectionable materials and the district has a complaint process to deal with those.

Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill said no one in the district endorses pornographic materials in schools. She said so far, not many of these complaints have been filed – and most district libraries have a ‘flagging system’ where parents can put books on a list that their child cannot check out.

Kraybill added that she’s had conversations with the New Hanover and Pender County District Attorney Ben David – and even Wake County’s District Attorney Lorrin Freeman about the banned book issue. They said that librarians are protected by the First Amendment in terms of having controversial books in schools.

Board Member Nelson Beaulieu addressed those in the audience who were upset about the content in certain books, saying that pulling a passage out of a book without context is not appropriate.

Academic achievement, equity in achievement

Republican school board candidate Pat Bradford said the board is not addressing academics – and the data surrounding achievement in math, reading, and writing.

Democratic candidate Veronica McLaurin-Brown also questioned the district on their NC Math 1 performance – and said they need to be paying attention to the results listed on the NC Report Card.

Justice responded by saying the teachers are teaching the curriculum – a sentiment echoed by all the board members. But she added that in order to be more effective, they need more support in the classroom in the form of more resources, staff, and teaching assistants.

McManus added that they’ve instituted new learning programs and have consistently offered summer school and tutoring opportunities. He also touted the board’s decision to do away with the 50 grading policy and reinstate the attendance policy for middle and high school students. He said they are stepping up their accountability measures for students.

Kraybill and member Stefanie Adams reiterated that teachers are using data-driven assessments and are constantly trying to determine how to get students to improve. Kraybill said a lot of the district’s academic goals are listed within the new 2022-2027 strategic plan.

Bradford had a follow-up comment to their statements – “I know, I’ve read the strategic plan, but there has been too much focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) and social-emotional learning (SEL). Kids need to learn civics and how to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance, the focus shouldn’t be on SEL.”

Beaulieu responded that it’s important to focus on SEL/EDI because “I can’t read if my stomach is empty or there was a gun fight in my neighborhood.” Other members reiterated that if emotional regulation is not addressed, then it’s difficult for a student to be successful in academics.

Following this thread, education activist Rebecca Trammel said to the board, “Academic performance is a symptom of health, a kid who is healthy, who is thriving has the opportunity to self-actualize, [...] so when I think about who is failing, those children are often Black, Brown, and/or poor, and so when we look at the data, what are we going to do to rectify this situation? And that’s why I believe in EDI work, we’re not just training pupils, we’re training people. [...] And where are we on the EDI position? EDI is not about touchy, feely kumbaya – it’s about how do we bridge this achievement gap?”

Kraybill and Adams responded that the district does do breakdowns of student subgroups and analyzes how they’re doing. They said along with Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam’s quarterly presentation of suspension data – they’re hoping to add presentations of student achievement. Additionally, Kraybill said they are in the process of hiring the EDI Officer, but they haven’t found a person who’s a good fit for the school system yet.

The relationship between mental health and school safety

Many of the board members addressed the emerging mental health crisis – and said it’s a priority for them to confront, as is providing more security measures in the form of adding school resource officers (SROs) and putting in vestibules to further screen those who come into district buildings. Kraybill said the county committed about $1 million to fund these vestibule additions.

There is one SRO per school, according to Kraybill, and they are building relationships with students in the building. Kraybill added there is no clear data that exists about their impact, but that SROs are meant to be an additional support system for the schools; that “they’re not meant to be armed guards.”

Justice countered and said that people are bringing up valid concerns about the presence of SROs in schools. That “some groups are not comfortable with them, especially low-income groups.” She said if they’re in the schools, they need to be trained effectively on how to deal with diverse student populations – not act as agents of getting information from students about their families.

Also in response to updating facilities for security reasons, Justice brought forth again the idea for the county commissioners to get a supermajority to access moneyin the county’s $300 million stabilization fund. She said, “We need this money now, it doesn’t need to sit in a bank somewhere.” But County Manager Chris Coudriet has been adamant that the schools cannot use this money.

Member Pete Wildeboer said that he talked with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office this week about how to ensure safety among the schools – and that more schools need safety teams. He also mentioned that they gave the Sheriff’s Office access back to the district’s cameras.

One audience member said she was concerned about a potential school shooter taking advantage of the layout of Pine Valley Elementary.

Adams said that the district is looking into how that school campus will be transformed, but she doesn’t know when the building upgrades will happen.

As for mental health workers, Kraybill said that this school year the district added about 150 of these, positions like counselors, school psychologists, and social workers. Additionally, they have about 38 mental health therapists working with the schools.

HQR has asked for a more specific breakdown from the district – and whether some of these positions will go away once the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER) run out – and has yet to receive this information.  

McManus added that bullying is the “single most underrated disaster in our schools.” He said they needed a more comprehensive social media policy in dealing with bullying tied to Title IX law. “It’s a very serious thing in our schools, and it’s a discipline issue.”

Additionally, former district teacher and president of the New Hanover County Association of Educators (NHCAE) Kristina Mercier said that during her time working at J.C. Roe, administrators and board members had “no clue what was going on in that school.” She said the school did not have visits from those in Central Office – and that her students were “overlooked.”

Wildeboer said he hadn’t been to Roe but had visited Mosley, he said he enjoys stopping by schools – so he suggested that they invite him or other board members to visit. Mercier responded that she wanted them to take a more proactive approach in seeing and understanding what goes on inside the district’s buildings.

District’s use of seclusion rooms

Democratic school board candidate Dorian Cromartie reiterated the need for additional mental health workers in the schools – and asked why the district couldn’t go ahead and eliminate seclusion rooms.

Walker said they are working on the issue, and Kraybill and McManus reiterated the October potential timeline for when they would take up the issue – after the schools have written their September school improvement plans and have received the appropriate training/professional development from Varnam on alternatives to seclusion.

Adams gave an example of when a student threw a chair across the room and the students had to evacuate for safety reasons. She said this practice is only used in these types of extreme circumstances, but they are working on SEL strategies to help students emotionally regulate themselves.

Beaulieu said there might have been occasions when this practice was used inappropriately as there are over 26,000 students in the district – but he said also in this number are kids who are a danger to themselves and others – so they need a solution to deal with it.

Justice said that she had never seen so much seclusion use within a district and that she’s looking to end the practice.

What’s next?

Members Wildeboer and Walker both suggested that the district will need to advocate for another school bond to keep pace with the county’s increasing population.

Members mentioned that many of the new school building plans are in the architectural review process – and they’ll be needing millions and millions in additional funding to get them completed.

Justice asked the community to advocate for more school funding from the county commissioners. Beaulieu said constituents should talk to their state legislators.

Another item for discussion was the future of masking with the onset of the highly contagious omicron variant BA.5. The members agreed – there have been no concrete discussions about mandating masks again. But they did say if students and staff want to wear one, they are welcome to do so. Additionally, they said they had not received specific direction on this topic from county, state, or federal officials.

Final thoughts

Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill said the town hall format was different and new for them – and it’s difficult for board members to refrain from responding during the regular ‘Call to the Audience’ period.

“We want to do this more often, but our climate has not been quite where, you know, where we felt comfortable in doing this but we took a leap, the community took a leap, and here we are, and we got some good dialogue going on and we look forward to doing this again in September,” she said.

Adams reiterated the importance of open dialogue with the community. She said if she knows that a constituent wants to have a conversation with her – that she would “pick up the phone or grab coffee with them.”

Kraybill ended the evening by saying she appreciated the feedback – that sometimes it’s not “pleasant but we need to hear it.”

Watch the town hall here.

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