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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

NHCS board candidates discuss district leadership, staff pay, and curriculum

Left to right - Josie Barnhart, Nelson Beaulieu, Pat Bradford, Dorian Cromartie, Judy Justice, Melissa Mason, Veronica McLaurin-Brown, and Pete Wildeboer
Left to right - Josie Barnhart, Nelson Beaulieu, Pat Bradford, Dorian Cromartie, Judy Justice, Melissa Mason, Veronica McLaurin-Brown, and Pete Wildeboer

WHQR co-hosted a 90-minute town hall with the eight candidates running for four seats on the New Hanover County Board of Education. Here's a detailed breakdown of some of the highlights.

Candidates on the superintendent’s leadership, commentary on board relations

Democratic incumbent Nelson Beaulieu, a U.S. military veteran and Cape Fear Community College instructor, said there’s been success with Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust’s leadership through therecently created strategic plan, working with the New Hanover county commissioners to help teachers have one of the highest local supplements in the state at $8,678, and ensuring they were at the front of the line to get vaccinated.

Beaulieu said he intends to hold the superintendent “accountable” — a line most candidates at the forum touted, but said in Foust’s capacity to hold others accountable in the district, “he's not always a warm, cuddly guy, but he's an ethical man, and I think he's the guy to get us to where we need to go.”

On the other hand, Republican candidate Melissa Mason, a Cape Fear Community College educator and a mom of students in the district said she would work to outright fire Foust: “I've spoken with many individuals within our community who are just dissatisfied with the job that he has done. We have plenty of cause to fire him we just need the will to use it.”

Incumbent Republican Pete Wildeboer, a former educator and administrator, said the incoming board needs to “help [Foust] improve or help move him out the door.”

Three of the other board candidates Democrat Veronica McLaurin-Brown, Republican Pat Bradford, and Republican Josie Barnhart mentioned during the panel they had a meeting with the current chair Stephanie Kraybill, who is not up for re-election, and Foust.

According to district spokesperson Russell Clark, this meeting was “a Meet & Greet for Dr. Foust, Senior Leadership, and the Board Chair. It was held on 9/27 in two sessions, one beginning at 9:00 AM and the other at 2:00 PM. All candidates were invited.”

In terms of current board relations, Democratic incumbent and former educator Judy Justice said, “there's still some factions on the board that no matter what comes up, it's a ‘no’, [...]. There's also extreme rudeness and some behavior coming from leadership that’s shocking. It's been going on now, sadly, for months and it's escalating.”

In terms of Justice’s owning part of the board’s alleged dysfunctional behavior, she said that all members need to “try harder.”

Justice also maintains that Foust is leading the disorganization of the district, and said that he doesn’t talk to her, though she is a board member charged with overseeing him. During past board meetings, she also has conflicts with the current Chair Stephanie Kraybill, and current members Nelson Beaulieu and Stefanie Adams, who’s not up for re-election.

Candidates on district business and staff pay

Last fall, the board’s calendar committee voted to approve the 2022-2023 calendar to end the high school semester before the holiday season. However, that later changed and this summer into fall, board members Hugh McManus, Stephanie Walker, and Judy Justice said teachers and staff began emailing them that the calendar adopted wasn’t the one they chose.

Beaulieu sits on this committee and said, “Come 2022 to 2023 school year, the mandated start date was August 29. That created a 13-day semester imbalance which would have greatly impacted and hurt our students who were taking biology in the first semester, who were taking English in the first semester. It gave them almost three weeks less time to master those core subjects prepare for their EOCs (end-of-grade tests) and get their job done. Once our central office staff realized the severity of the imbalance, they thought about it, they recalled our calendar committee and they said, ‘Look, we're sacrificing too much — and we should change.’ So they went back they reconstituted that committee and the committee voted unanimously to make that change. It is absolutely not perfect.”

The teachers who contacted board members were ultimately upset with this change; they argued that high schoolers who are dually enrolled are not aligned with the schedules of Cape Fear Community College or the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Another topic of discussion was the district’s budget.

Candidate Veronica McLaurin-Brown, a former educator and administrator, said explaining how the budget works can be difficult.

“Understanding that when you have budget coming in from the county, the federal government, the state and also from grants, the codes that outline how you can use that money and all the rules that are associated with whether or not [...] you want to increase wages, and they [teachers, staff] know the money is there, but you're not allowed to use the money. Just based on being at the school board meetings from March 2021 to today and listening to the bus drivers and listening to the teachers and teacher assistants (TAs), they certainly expressed a lot of concern,” McLaurin-Brown said.

McLaurin-Brown is referencing the TAs/classified staff’s unease over not using the federal ESSER funds for wage increases. While the district did give bonuses out of those funds, they said they couldn’t maintain a wage increase with non-recurring funds. Any meaningful wage increase, the district maintains, would have to come from the state or the county.

Because of the lack of movement on wage increases from both the county commissioners and the state, Wildeboer said he would support the rights of teachers and staff to collectively bargain, although, he acknowledged that wasn’t in his power to change (collective bargaining by government employees is currently illegal under state law). He cited his experiences working as an educator in New Jersey and how he was paid much better, which he attributed to the state’s right to unionize.

“So I think it's very important that we give our educators the right to get the highest dollar they possibly can. And I would support that,” Wildeboer said.

Wildeboer also cited that North Carolina is far down in the rankings in terms of average teacher salaries, but according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, the state ranks 34th for teacher pay at $54,392.

Wildeboer’s record as a board member shows that he advocated consistently for a $17 an hour minimum for all classified staff — and supported this ask of the New Hanover County Commissioners who control this decision.

Another incumbent Justice also pushed for this ask of the commissioners, “These amazing people and the other staff, they were working 60-80 hours a week, obviously not getting compensated under a lot of stress. And then on top of the pandemic, and I hate to keep going back to this, our leadership has not done what it needs to do in order to make our teachers feel like they are respected and appreciated. So at this point, we need to get funding for resources. We need to be pressuring the state. We need to get more money from the county commissioners.”

Justice also mentioned the county being the “fifth wealthiest county” in the state. According to a recent study, covered by CBS17, based on investment income, property value, and per capita income —New Hanover ranks 8th in the state for this wealth.

She also claimed the following on the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center: “We also have $1.5 billion sitting in the bank from the hospital sale and $388 million in an emergency fund that they refuse to touch even though it was promised to them at the time of the sale for public schools.”

The sale price of NHRMC to Novant Health was $1.5 billion — and an additional $400 million in cash reserves from the hospital that was turned over to the county. Of that, $1.9 billion total, $1.25 billion is now in a private nonprofit foundation called, the New Hanover County Endowment, which is currently being invested in various markets — and will likely generate $50 million dollars annually once it reaches its full potential. The endowment's grant awards are approved made by the board of this nonprofit, based on four areas, one of which is education.

There's another $350 million in the county's coffers, much of which is being invested in low-risk markets. $50 million of that is earmarked for mental and behavioral health. In September, the county approved a strategic plan guiding how this funding will be used, alongside $18.4 million from the opioid settlement. The other $300 million, called the revenue stabilization fund, would require a supermajority (four out of the five) of the commissioners to pull the funds; otherwise, according to the county manager, Chris Coudriet, the fund is for “voter-approved debts, limited obligation funds, and or an unforeseen economic crisis.

Democratic candidate Dorian Cromartie, a volunteer in the school system and U.S. military veteran, too, said he was concerned about the way in which bus drivers are paid. “We also have to look at the fact that the cost of living here calls for $21 an hour. [...] I mean if you want someone to work for you, you have to give them a reason to. A lot of people are not becoming bus drivers [but] would like to become bus drivers, but the cost to do the training is too expensive, $300 is a lot for some people.”

However, according to district spokesperson Russell Clark, they “cover the upfront cost of becoming a bus driver. Candidates are only responsible for $30 upfront, which is later reimbursed. This is the fee that has to be paid at the Department of Motor Vehicles.”

Additionally, this ‘livable wage’ is up for debate and depends on how many adults and children are living in the home.

Cromartie also said he wants to improve security at the district's schools, but said he wants to take a closer look at the way in which school resource officers (SROs) operate.

“Another thing we could also work on is our relationship with our SROs and our mental health workers. I think that an SRO should be the last resource in any situation at the schools. First, we should provide mental health counseling for our students, and then we also need to probably get a little bit involved with the home life as well. I think that we also need to make sure that we use more data-driven practices when it comes to our SROs and that we're not just throwing more money at SROs and probably throw some money directly in the classroom to help the students and staff," he said.

The county has provided almost $2 million in additional funding for SROs – and for now, the Sheriff’s Office evaluates its own effectiveness. Cromartie said he would like for that data to be transparent.

Wildeboer in his opening statement also mentioned the security of the schools, “A few weeks ago, we had a child die on one of our campuses.” WHQR could find no record of a student shot on campus, but a district student was apparently killed in a recent shooting. Wildeboer also mentioned making the schools more secure post the shooting at New Hanover High in August 2021.

In response to issues with student behavior, McLaurin-Brown said, “I would like for the system to make sure that we support our staff with the resources that they need. And if they need additional assistance, if they need additional social workers, it is the job of this school board to advocate and get those resources that they need. And most importantly, I want the teachers to tell us what they need. And let's get it done.”

Parents’ Rights/Curriculum Arguments

Republican candidate Josie Barnhart, a former educator and a mom of students in the district, said the issue of parental involvement came up in one of the board’s curriculum committees.

“It was brought up by our educators, ‘How are we going to ensure consistent, unbiased teaching is occurring?’ So there is absolutely an element of concern of that, yet parents don't have access. So if we don't have access, what happens is this: it's this big monster of, what could be taught? The purpose is we're supposed to be educating our kids. And if our parents know what is being taught, then we can have accountability in the classroom, and we can ensure that well-rounded teaching is occurring," she said.

The district maintains that parents do have access to the curriculum by contacting their teacher, their school’s administrator(s), and by going to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s Standard Course of Study.

Barnhart also answered a question about the continuing segregation of New Hanover County Schools by race and income.

“People in the past who had done redistricting, I wasn't a part of that. So with that being said, I believe that all children can learn. When you hold kids accountable to the highest standard, that's what they're going to rise up to become. What I've seen happen over the last few years, it's been very evident rather than academic excellence, we're taking on whole child development. When you open that door, schools are now responsible for something beyond academics. We have five failing schools and eight ‘D’ schools right now. In addition to the horrible academics that we are currently setting, you're also in charge of the developmental needs of all children. I think we're setting up a lot of parents and teachers to not be successful," she said.

Barnhart is referencing Port City Daily’s coverage of the recently released NCDPI accountability report. What this report shows is that these low-performing schools have larger pockets of low-income students.

Also with the curriculum, there are candidates who say the school system is teaching critical race theory (CRT).

Wildeboer said at the forum, “Well, if you remember I that came up in the June meeting before where our superintendent stood up and said, ‘We are not teaching CRT.’ And I brought up the fact that Brunswick County actually passed a policy blocking CRT. The state government actually had two different laws put in front of the governor, which he vetoed, that said we will not teach CRT. So obviously there is CRT. I actually went through our deputy superintendent at the time, Ms. Smith, actually went through the whole framework, but I brought up the glossary and it had exactly each and every word there. And she had to admit that they are actually in there.”

There is no CRT in the state standards nor the district’s curriculum. And the terms Wildeboer is referencing with Dr. Smith, in July 2021, are not words like, ‘CRT’; but terms like ‘bias’ and ‘systematic racism’. But Wildeboer is correct in his statement thatBCS did pass a policy that specifically outlines the teaching of CRT.

Republican Pat Bradford, the owner and publisher of Wrightsville Beach Magazine, is also skeptical of the district’s curriculum.

At June 2021 board meeting, during the public comment period, Bradford said she remembered a time when she “felt the pain of the oppressed, the black man, the red man, the yellow man, my body was my own. No government was going to tell me what I could do and could not do. I didn't respect the sanctity of marriage. I didn't respect the nuclear family.” She went on to say, “Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion), SEL (social-emotional learning), and CRT no matter what you call it. [...]. You may have approved its adoption; you may have signed the contract already. You may be implementing it but know this we the people are not with you. Open your minds here. You're being deceived. And I beg you to reconsider and reject this intolerant and basically evil curriculum.”

During the candidate panel, when Bradford was asked about these comments, she responded, “I don't remember saying those words exactly the way you've quoted them. I am a big proponent of the four core subjects, reading, writing, math, and civics. Social-emotional learning is taking the place of our core subjects or traditional education. I have said that many times. I don't use the word CRT because it's such a broad umbrella for the things that are happening in the schools. But I do think that devoting 15 minutes every day in the curriculum for social-emotional feelings would be better spent teaching children to read.”

Following the panel, Bradford said she stands by these comments.

As for the district’s comments on SEL, district spokesperson Russell Clark said, “all information regarding curriculum and instruction can be found at this link.”

The district also has a page dedicated to SEL and Behavior Education.

Bradford added that she didn’t know how to exactly define SEL and that she was still researching it. She also said, “feelings are awesome,” and that there needs to be more mental health support available to students.

In addition, she said, “Where’s the ‘mythical’ $50,000 for mental health the county promised?” The county has designated $50 million for this – and the county has released a ‘plan’forthe funding but it doesn’t include many specific details.

Bradford has tried to moderate some of her rhetoric recently, but in September 2021, she said, “Jesus Christ save us from the enemies in this country,” “Stop drinking the Kool-Aid that the government and the media are putting on you,” “Tyranny of masks has to stop.”

In October of that year, she said the board would one day face the consequences of requiring masks for students during the pandemic, going on to say that they would face a Nuremberg-like trial for the policy, equating the Board of Education with leaders of the German Nazi party tried by the Allied forces from 1945 to 1946.

The following month in November she told the board, “You are about power, control, and greed,” “You are puppets of the federal government,” “Stop sexualizing our kids,” and “Stop teaching them anti-American values. It’s time to stop the anti-white, anti-Christian, anti-family curriculum.”

In both July and August 2022, during these public comment periods – Bradford read sexually explicit material out of context from All Boys Aren’t Blue and Out of Darkness.

Republican candidate Melissa Mason also responded to questions about her accusations of grooming against the district and its employees, specifically about the district’s former gender support plan.

“When I initially heard about the gender support plan, which is where all of this started, and honestly, it's about transgender kids, and here's the thing about trans kids – absolutely, we need to be concerned about because they have a higher suicide rate. But the problem is, when you separate them from their community, and their family, and you keep secrets from their parents, you're isolating the most vulnerable. It's damaging, and it's dangerous to do. We need to love our kids, no matter what, it does not matter whether they are gay, straight or trans. We have to protect them from early sexualization. And that is where I first saw the gender support plan was where I first saw that grooming that was beginning to happen," she said.

The district has said they are no longer using that gender support plan. Previously, the gender support plan was designed to support a student whose gender identity has changed or is different than what their family or birth certificate says.

Grooming is a process that slowly introduces someone to more and more sexual content until they are okay with inappropriate contact for the end purpose of sexually molesting or abusing someone. For Mason to say that having a conversation about the gender identity of the student is the same as what convicted felon and former district teacher Michael Earl Kelly did is inaccurate.

Mason also said during a board public comment period in July 2022 that “Superintendent Foust’s administration continues to push the systematic hypersexualization of our kids and a ‘grooming’ agenda on this community. That’s what the word, ‘inclusive’ means in Policy 3540. We, the parents, reject these policies, but Dr. Foust and his staff have contempt for community values — they have deceived and obstructed concerned parents.”

Also at this July meeting, she said she was upset with District Attorney Ben David’s and Sheriff Ed McMahon’srefusal to remove controversial books from the New Hanover County libraries. The Sheriff's Office assigned several top deputies to investigate nine books, which were later turned over to the DA's office, where prosecutors weighed the material against state law and the First Amendment. David ultimately said that, while he could understand concerns about the material, they were protected under both state statute and the Constitution.

“I guess it’s your job to give pornography to kids,” Mason said.

Editor's Note*: This article incorrectly stated that Melissa Mason was a former teacher. She currently teaches at Cape Fear Community College.


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