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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Deep Dive: What caused the disruption at CFCC’s marine tech program?

CFCC students are trained on the Cape Hatteras.
CFCC students are trained on the Cape Hatteras.

This semester, high-profile resignations left Cape Fear Community College marine tech students without the opportunity to join the program’s crucial training cruise — or a satisfactory explanation for why the program had been disrupted. WHQR dug deep into public records to try and shed more light on the issue.

One of the key offerings in Cape Fear Community College’s marine tech program is the training cruise, which offers students invaluable hands-on training. Students spend roughly a week at sea on the Cape Hatteras, CFCC’s 135-foot training vessel, and the experience, difficult to recreate on smaller boats, has been parlayed by past students into careers in marine tech fields like oceanic surveying, transportation, and fisheries research.

But at the end of August, just as the semester was gearing up, two key employees in the CFCC marine tech program — Captain Robert Daniels and William Davis, the boatswain and a scientific support technician — resigned.

Related: CFCC Marine Tech program sees resignations following changes to compensatory leave policy

This left the Hatteras ‘masterless’ and unable to set sail, meaning students would miss out on the program’s centerpiece experience.

It became clear that the two resigned over changes to the way CFCC handled compensation for employees who set sail on the training cruises, which can involve considerably longer days than a traditional education week at the college.

Non-exempt, exempt, overtime, and comp time

Understanding the resignations, and the impact on the program requires getting into the weeds of CFCC’s compensation policy.

While the college hasn’t provided clear specifics, it appears that prior to this semester most – or even all – of the CFCC staff on the Hatteras were classified as ‘non-exempt,’ as in, not exempt for receiving overtime.

On land, this might mean that employees are paid ‘overtime’ – often 1.5 times the usual rate – when they work over 40 hours per week. But, likely due to the abnormally high number of hours staff worked during a cruise, CFCC’s policy for those employees instead provided “comp time.” This appears to have meant that while employees were not paid for overtime, they did earn 1.5 hours of paid time off for every hour of overtime they work.

This comp time was valuable, both because staff could take adequate time off after a grueling week on the Hatteras – or, they could bank the time, and cash it in if they left the college.

But just prior to the semester, it appears the college moved to reclassify many employees to ‘exempt’ status – as in, exempt from overtime.

Exempt employees didn’t receive any comp time, at all.

Losing out on the comp time seems to have made the job suddenly much less appealing and, while we don’t know for sure, likely led to Daniels and Davis’ resignation.

Facing student pushback, CFCC partially walked back comp policy changes

Students protested the loss of the training cruise, which was crucial to the program. The college eventually relented.

Related: CFCC reverses course on its controversial decision to eliminate comp time for Cape Hatteras crew

The college rolled out a new policy, called ‘sea time,’ which provided many staff members with an hour of paid time off for every overtime hour. Apparently, this ‘sea time’ couldn’t be banked and cashed out like ‘comp time,’ nor did it accrue at the same rate as ‘comp time,’ but the compromise seemed to satisfy most staff members – including boatswain Davis, who returned to the college.

At the time, Jason Rogers – the department chair - gave students credit for reversing the move, which he acknowledged had been a mistake.

Now, the college is moving to hire a new captain and hopes to have colleges back at sea in the spring semester. A December 15 email sent to marine technology students by Rogers, announced the hiring of Captain Kameron Knight, who will start on January 9.

Knight, according to Rogers’ email, is a graduate of SUNY Maritime college and has worked for Crowley Government Services, and most recently, as the captain of the NC Ferry service in Southport/Fort Fisher.

Rogers' email to students about Knight.
Rogers' email to students about Knight.

But for this semester, the damage is done, and students will have to make do without training on the Hatteras.

It’s left students, the public, and even one CFCC trustee asking why this all happened.

What caused the compensation policy change?

In a statement, CFCC Board of Trustees member Ray Funderburk III contemplated whether the upheaval was necessary.

“As a trustee first, I was very concerned that students lost experience on the ship and time at sea. These are students who had already been waiting since COVID and the ship overhaul. We had to suspend a program that may be the only one of its kind in the country. Second, because the remedy happens so quickly after the crew resignations, I have to believe the entire situation could have been avoided with a little more planning and discussion beforehand,” Funderburk said.

From the college’s perspective, the reasons have already been publicly shared. When asked to clarify why the policy was even changed in the first place, CFCC spokesperson Christina Hallingse said, “There is no additional information to provide.”

But the actual reasons remain unclear.

When WHQR first started reporting on the change in policy, John Downing, CFCC vice president of economic and workforce development, called a meeting with the marine tech students on August 30. Downing told students that the change was the result of an internal human resources (HR) study, which was conducted and finalized around mid-August. He said the change would classify these employees as ‘exempt’ from overtime, and bring the program into compliance with stipulations in the Wages and Fair Labor Standards Act(FLSA).

But those reasons seemingly changed after Downing made these statements.

When HQR requested the internal HR study, the college said, “it does not exist.” When pressed about the specifics of FLSA, there was no response, either.

When HQR tried to clarify and get specific answers via email to former lead CFCC spokesperson Sonya Johnson, there was never a direct response shared, although the college did respond to other media outlets like WWAY and WECT.

On September 6, Johnson said to WWAY, “Recently, personnel changes have occurred that may result in adjusted training plans. However, the College is making every effort to move forward so that our marine tech students can receive this one-of-a-kind training.[...]. Marine Technology is a very expensive program for the college to operate. In order to make the program viable for years to come, some adjustments must be made. The R/V Cape Hatteras is aging, and a newer vessel will need to be considered soon. In order to secure a newer vessel, the college will be researching additional funding opportunities. The purchase of a newer vessel would help reduce fuel, repair, and operating expenses.”

Those following the story, including marine tech students, hoped that the September 23 trustees meeting would shed some light on the issue.

During that meeting, CFCC President Jim Morton said that the phrase ‘comp time’ had “legal tentacles to it,” hence the reason for the switch. But that didn’t explain to members like Funderburk why the college didn’t figure that out earlier to prevent the two crew resignations and the resulting disruption.

On September 27 Johnson clarified to WECT, “Recently, while evaluating programs and employment statuses, the college discovered a classification error that needed to be corrected for some ship personnel who were incorrectly earning compensatory leave. To correct the error, the college moved some ship personnel from non-exempt to exempt status based on their particular job duties.

Johnson said that the timing was “frustrating for students. However, the ship operates year-round, and no time was better than another to address the classification issue.”

Johnson wouldn’t elaborate or provide the reason for the “error.”

Over the four months from the August decision until now, WHQR has pressed the college for documents to help explain the situation. While the picture painted by the emails is incomplete, it does offer some additional insight.

A timeline of public records requests (PRR)

For several months, WHQR has been corresponding with CFCC spokespersons Sonya Johnson and Christina Hallingse.

On September 2, WHQR first asked for all the emails between Rogers, Anne Smith, vice president of human resources & college safety, Mark Council, dean of career and technical education, and Vice President Downing from August 8 - September 2, 2022.

On October 21, after several back-and-forth exchanges, WHQR received 178 pages of emails with many redactions, to the extent that many pages were unreadable. About a week later, WHQR asked for the specific reasons for the redactions for about 8 pages of them, ones that seemed important enough in providing clues to the reason for the initial change.

A month later, on November 25, the college provided the reasons. Much of December was spent reviewing the college’s rationales with Duke Law School’s First Amendment Clinic — and sending some pushback against the redaction claims, and waiting for additional response(s) from Hallingse.

After a follow-up request, the college provided emails between Jason Rogers and Anne Smith, vice president of human resources and college safety, that had been omitted from the initial request – but all five pages were redacted. The college claimed, “privacy of state employee personnel records.”

When asked about the nature of these emails, Hallingse said they are protected since Rogers was consulting with human resources. The subject line was “Fall training cruises”.

Clues in the emails

Starting on August 12, Vice President John Downing wrote to Council, the career and technical education dean, “[w]hen we meet on Monday I plan to have Ann [sic] there to discuss the issues with Compensatory time with Jason Rodgers [sic].

In later emails, it appears that there was a meeting that took place on August 11, where some of the news about the change in leave policy was communicated to Rogers. Much of the details surrounding this meeting were redacted.

About a week later, Council asked Rogers, “Can you please explain to John [Downing] why we have to have 5 fall cruises?”

This may have indicated Downing was looking for places to save the college money – but the college has not confirmed this. Rogers responded the following, explaining that the program had been run this way for 40 years, and the requirements that led the college to run five cruises in the fall semester.

By August 22, it was clear that Smith had communicated to Rogers that most of the crew were moving to ‘exempt’ status – and would be thus losing their compensatory leave time.

The effect was quickly felt. Emails show that, around this time, Rogers had to inform John Feuerbach, a marine inspector from the US Coast Guard, that the Hatteras was “without command.”

Rogers had to “interrupt” Downing’s vacation time to tell him, “[redacted] has resigned his position, in addition to our [redacted]. I anticipate there might be others. What are the concerns, from the USCG’s perspective, with a ship tied to the dock without a Master?”

The college claims the names in Rogers’ email to Downing were redacted pursuant to “privacy of state employee personnel records,” although the college does announce the names of those leaving CFCC in public reports given to the Trustees.

Emails also indicate the college was looking for a workable solution under their new compensation policy.

Dean Council had asked Smith, “You mentioned in our meeting last week that you found a vessel up in the Baltimore area (I believe) that currently operates their vessel with an exempt crew. What was the name of that vessel/outfit?” On August 26, he followed up, noting Smith had said she’s reached out to the crew, and telling her, “I really need to know the name.”

Recently, HQR asked Hallingse if there was ever an answer to Council’s queries to Smith. She responded, “There are no emails pursuant to this request.”

At the same time, Downing suggested hiring a new captain to salvage part of the semester. Council interjected, saying “it’s too late for that. I’ll start looking for a captain, but finding one who is available, willing to work for what we pay (especially without sea pay), and has experience with a vessel of our type will be difficult.”

By August 29, emails suggest Downing was pushing Rogers on the status of the fall cruises.

In one email, which appears to be a draft of an email to Downing that Rogers was running past Council, Rogers detailed some of the difficulties new crew members would face getting up to speed on the Hatteras because of the resignations.

Rogers also voiced some concern: “With the resignation of [redacted] we do not have a Captain. [Redacted] was mentioned as an option today. [Redacted] has not sailed on a boat in 8 years. From a safety aspect I do not feel comfortable sending students to sea with [redacted] and a first-mate who has never sailed on the vessel before.

He added, “Given these staffing concerns, conducting the cruises on the Martech [a smaller CFCC craft] is our safest option. If [redacted] resigns then the Martech could be in jeopardy as well, and that would have ramifications on being able to complete the classes as scheduled.”

Rogers also emphasized his program was run on a tight budget.

Budget concerns could easily have been spurred by the looming need to replace the Hatteras. In a September 1 email between Council and Downing, there were talks of needing a “new” research ship.

“You wanted me to get you some pricing concerning a new research vessel. J [Jason Rogers] and I sat down and looked at a couple of smaller vessels. $5 million 72-foot vessel that sleeps 8. $8 million 82-foot vessel that we ‘think’ sleeps 20. The wording was a little unclear but we think 20,” Council wrote.

A concerned alum weighs in

At the time, WHQR had two stories out about the change in policy — and lingering questions. The reporting on the issue prompted an email from a former alum of the program to Council. The college turned over the email but redacted the alum’s name.

The former marine tech student wrote in part, “The demand for human capital in marine industries is growing exponentially. From the renewable sector to surveying and dredging our waterways to monitoring marine biological migration patterns, [...] CFCC Marine Technology can continue to be the power plant that produces a skilled and robust workforce for our marine industries. However, these employers need the R/V Cape Hatteras to be operational to give the students the high-quality training needed to succeed.”

The unnamed alum ended with a call to action for the upper administration, “I ask that you and your superiors do what is needed for the staff and crew of the R/V Cape Hatteras to ensure that our next generation of offshore employees are given this opportunity.”

CFCC spokesperson Hallingse maintains the alum’s name was redacted according to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

However, Amanda Martin of Duke Law School’s First Amendment Clinic said, “FERPA has an exception for what's called ‘directory information,’ which includes the names of students. So the fact that a particular student went to a particular school is not confidential.”

Hallingse said that the name in this context is confidential — and is not showing up as a part of a directory. WHQR has reached out to Attorney General Josh Stein’s Open Government Unit for further clarity on this issue but has yet to hear back.

WHQR contacted the alum, who said they received emailed responses from Downing, Morton, and Council — but these responses weren’t included in response to public records requests. WHQR has since asked for these emails specifically.

The program flounders

By September 2, Feuerbach sent an email from the Coast Guard to Rogers saying he was concerned that the Hatteras was moored without a Captain in the case of “heavy weather or an approach tropical storm.” Feuerbach had another concern, “the vessel does not get underway without an appropriately licensed person in charge as stipulated in the ORV designation letter.”

Three days later, Rogers relayed these concerns up the CFCC hierarchy, noting that aspects of the program could become non-compliant.

Megan McDeavitt, a senior marine tech student — and a UNCW Fellow who works for WHQR, said to her knowledge, no one new was hired to become the ‘port captain’.

McDeavitt said that this past fall, the students were only able to spend two half-days out on the Martech, which is about a quarter of Hatteras’s size, in the Cape Fear River.

Seniors in the program missed their 10 days out at sea. Freshmen missed out on their 5 days.

McDeavitt said these missing sea hours are crucial to accruing professional seafaring qualifications. Additionally, those who were interested in gaining time towards a captain’s license or other certifications didn’t have that opportunity either. Further, they missed out on training on crucial equipment.

Back in September, Park Hodges, another marine tech senior told WHQR, “While we are able to use a lot of the [same] equipment [on the Martech], we're still not able to implement it in the same way if you're out in the middle of the ocean, 50 miles offshore with five to 10-foot seas, knocking you around the boat. It's just, it's not the same.”

Hodges gave another example of why learning on the Hatteras is integral to the program: “We have a big torpedo-shaped side scan sonar device; it's attached to a cable and provides us live feed of the bottom. Put out in the river (where they take the Martech), we're trolling 40 feet deep; go offshore, we're trolling 100 feet deep. That's a lot different.”

The students seemingly will have a chance this spring out on the Hatteras with incoming captain Kameron Knight. But, for the time being, they won’t have a full explanation of why their fall semester was disrupted.

*The article continues below. These are excerpts from the 178 pages of emails, with Hallingse providing the reason for the redactions.

Follow the CFCC marine tech reporting

August -CFCC Marine Tech program sees resignations following changes to compensatory leave policy

September - CFCC marine tech students speak out after high-profile resignations hamper program

September - CFCC Marine Technology program at stake after changes to employment status, WWAY

September -CFCC reverses course on its controversial decision to eliminate comp time for Cape Hatteras crew

September - CFCC President responds to questions over marine tech program

September - CFCC Trustee wants answers from school for Marine Tech changes that led to resignations, WECT

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