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New Hanover school board faced outside pressure on CFCC trustee appointment

Former CFCC Trustee Robby Collins at his school board interview in June.
NHCS YouTube
Former CFCC Trustee Robby Collins at his school board interview in June.

Last month, the New Hanover County Board of Education unanimously appointed Ray Funderburk III to replace Robby Collins on the Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees. But in the weeks leading up to the appointment, County Commissioner Bill Rivenbark — who also sits on the college board — asked school board members to stick with Collins. The head of CFCC President Jim Morton's office was also interested in keeping Collins on the board.

The New Hanover County Board of Education appoints four of the thirteen CFCC trustees to their four-year terms (the other seats are appointed by county commissioners from New Hanover and Pender counties and the Governor). The school board makes its appointments by majority vote after interviewing candidates.

The most recent appointment process took place in early June. Following the school board interviews for the CFCC Trustee appointment — aiming to decide between sitting trustee Robby Collins and Ray Funderburk III — the NHCS board unanimously appointed Funderburk 5-0, with member Nelson Beaulieu recusing himself since he’s an employee of the college and member Stefanie Adams being absent from the vote.

In May, County Commissioner Bill Rivenbark, who also sits on the CFCC Board of Trustees, reached out to school board Chair Stephanie Kraybill and members Stephanie Walker and Hugh McManus to encourage them to stick with Collins, a friend of Rivenbark's who was first appointed as a CFCC trustee by the school board in 2018.

The timing could have given Rivenbark’s request additional leverage since he was asking to appoint Collins as he and his fellow county commissioners were deciding how much to give the school district for their final budget.

Board member Judy Justice Justice alluded to Rivenbark's efforts during the June interview process in her conversation with Kraybill, saying “I'm talking about the transactional process that seems to be taking place too often in these kinds of situations.” At the time, Justice told WHQR that she thought Collins was communicating with the board outside of the normal application process.

Rivenbark told WHQR the reason for his calls was that he had known Collins for a long time — and his experience serving on the finance committee led him to ask for his reinstatement to the CFCC Board.

According to Walker, Rivenbark called her to say that, “he really needed him [Collins] back on the board and that he was a solid guy, that he was like a right-hand man.”

Kraybill confirmed Rivenbark called her and asked her to reinstate Collins. She told WHQR that she had informed Rivenbark that she couldn’t do just reappoint Collins, according to Policy 2660, which lays out the school board’s formal process for interviewing and appointing trustees with a majority vote — and precludes simply reinstating an outgoing or former member.

It’s likely that Rivenbark knew this policy because he, too, served as a school board member 2018-2020, and was in his position when there was controversy over the school board’s appointment of CFCC Trustee Jason McLeod in July 2020.

Changes to 'confusing' appointment process

During McLeod’s appointment process, former school board members Rivenbark and Lisa Estep, now a member of the North Carolina Community College Board, wanted to take an immediate vote without discussion, but members like Judy Justice and Stefanie Adams said they wanted to converse about the candidates before the vote. They also said that the process favored McLeod and discounted other applicants.

According to Port City Daily, Justice said of the McLeod vote, “I almost felt like it was rigged. I felt last year’s [2019’s trustee nomination process] was rigged. It’s like, ‘We’re going to pick who we want. We’re the majority on the board. We’re going to decide this ahead of time.’”

Following the McLeod appointment, Rivenbark abdicated his school board to run for the Board of Commissioners — but he was part of the board’s decision to update the appointment policy in October of 2020.

Editor's note: WHQR reached out to the school district to ask if the change in appointment policy was a direct result of the controversial July 2020 CFCC special meeting, and has yet to receive confirmation.

Interest from Jim Morton's office

Besides Rivenbark’s calls to reinstate Collins, Kraybill also confirmed that Michelle Lee, the executive director of CFCC President Jim Morton’s Office, called Crystal Buie, administrative assistant to the school board, to ask if Collins could be reinstated. Kraybill said, as they had with Rivenbark, they informed Lee of Policy 2260, governing the appointment process for trustees.

Editor's note: WHQR also reached out to the college to confirm Lee called the school district.

Kraybill added that said she approached President Jim Morton at a recent political event and said, “I know you’re disappointed in our pick, but you will love our appointment [Funderburk], he’ll be an asset to the college and there’s no need to be sad.”

Oversight at CFCC

The CFCC Board of Trustees are responsible for hiring and evaluating the college president. They have, historically, been supportive of President Jim Morton and their enthusiasm for his administration has been seemingly unshaken by a host of allegations concerning toxic workplace conditions.

During the interview process, school board members asked both Funderburk and Collinsabout how they would approach their oversight role as a trustee.

Funderburk that oversight is the trustees’ main position and that the board would be “the court of last resort for many of the employees or students who are upset with what's going on.” But he said he didn’t believe in micromanagement, “You delegate authority and retain responsibility.”

Collins also responded to an oversight question by the school board, “As a board, we’re not part of the day-to-day administration of the college but we have the responsibility of advising and providing oversight over the college president.”

Collins also during his interview with the school board said that a recent staff survey came back with “very positive feedback from the professors,” although according to WHQR’s analysis of the survey, the results are more or less mixed, and the comments left by faculty and staff do not reflect this type of feedback.

Ethical concerns?

WHQR wrote to the UNC School of Government about potential ethical concerns involved in this issue but didn’t hear back. The state Ethics Commission said in an email that it does not comment publicly on potential complaints.

According to the Commission, it’s up to the “covered persons” (legislators, judges, district attorneys, and/or public servants) or legislative employees who were affected by the alleged ethics violation to file one with them. And if a complaint is filed, it’s then investigated by the Commission staff, and then considered by the members of the Commission.

“That process is strictly confidential. The facts underlying a complaint are thoroughly considered and all parties are provided with the opportunity to address all allegations,” said Kathleen Edwards, executive director of the Commission.

Edwards also said the state statute that governs gift bans and conflicts of interests provisions are filed under the State Government Ethics Act. The statute mainly covers ‘reasonably foreseeable financial benefits’ to the politician or if they have a familial relationship, personal, or financial relationship with a participant in a particular proceeding.

So the question remains, is this ‘run-of-the-mill’ advocating for whom the fellow trustee or president’s office wants on its oversight board, or is it an attempt to exert undue political influence?

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