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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

“Say it out loud”: NHC school board member criticizes attempt to scuttle trans-athlete policy over 'procedural error'

From New Hanover County Schools' policy 3620.
From New Hanover County Schools' policy 3620.

The newly elected and more conservative wing of the New Hanover County Board of Education attempted to scrap the district’s policy on middle-school transgender athletes at Tuesday night’s meeting over the protests of a more centrist Republican and one of the board’s two Democrats. The board also struggled, without resolution, to solve its ongoing school calendar problem.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Vice-Chair Pat Bradford made a motion to add a discussion of policy 3620 to the agenda.

Bradford, an outspoken conservative critic of many of the district's more progressive policies, referenced only the policy’s innocuous-sounding name — “extracurricular activities and student organizations.”

However, those following the rightward shift of the school board would have probably guessed, accurately, that this was about the contentious June 2021 modification to that policy, which allowed middle school students to play sports based on their gender identity — although it did not guarantee the same option for high-school sports.

Related:New Hanover County Board of Education passes transgender athlete policy

Asked why she wanted to add the policy to the agenda, Bradford said there were “procedural concerns.”

The board voted 5-2 to add the item to the agenda; Stephanie Walker, a progressive-leaning Democrat, and Stephanie Kraybill, a more center-right Republican, dissented, setting up a contentious discussion five hours later.

‘Procedural error’

Late in the evening, when Bradford’s item came up, she called a motion to rescind part of the June 2021 vote, specifically the decision to waive a first reading. Bradford noted the time of that vote — 11:45 p.m. — perhaps implying that it had been too rushed.

Chair Pete Wildeboer also suggested that then-Vice Chair Nelson Beaulieu — who cast a deciding vote on waiving the first reading — had violated policy; Beaulieu had attended remotely and did not stay for the whole meeting. After consulting with the board’s attorney, this line of argument was effectively dropped.

Bradford called the vote a “procedural error” — but Walker and Kraybill pointed out that the board had done nothing wrong.

Bradford did not provide convincing evidence that the board had acted incorrectly. Under the board’s existing procedural policy, new policies require two votes — but modifications to existing policies, like the June 2021 vote, only require one if the board votes to waive the other reading.

Walker tried to draw Bradford out, saying, “it kind of seems a little hidden about what [the motion] means.” She also objected to the attempt to revisit the policy over what she called a ‘technicality.’

“If there’s a policy you guys don’t care for, then bring it up in policy committee, and then bring it to the board again for a vote — I don’t think trying to do it on a technicality is going to — I don't think it’s procedurally correct, and I think it’s been in adoption for over a year now,” Walker said.

Board member Josie Barnhart said that, because there were not currently any trans-athletes playing according to their gender identity under the policy, the issue was too urgent to go through the policy committee.

“Because we don’t have anybody that is utilizing these qualifications that is why a faster turnaround for a change would be something for discussion versus going through the policy,” she said, implying the need to settle the question before it could have a real-world impact on an actual transgender student.

‘Backdoor attempt’

Kraybill was more direct than Walker in her criticism of Bradford’s motion.

“I just think this a back door attempt for you to take away the rights of transgender students and to not provide equal opportunities for all of our students,” Kraybill said. “So if that is what you want to do, say it out loud and don’t backdoor us.”

Kraybill expressed concern about last-minute agenda additions, arguing that since Bradford had added the policy without advanced notice there had been no time for staff to provide contextual information to the board. Specifically, Kraybill noted that the district’s Title IX director was not present — a concern, since Kraybill said it was her opinion that rescinding the trans-athlete policy would violate federal Title IX law.

“We’re worried about breaking calendar law but we’re not worrying about breaking discrimination laws? I’m having a stroke right now, that this is the beginning of the end, where we’re going to backdoor each other every single meeting, and I think we need to check our conscience, it’s just not right,” she said.

The board voted 4-3 in favor of rescinding the 2021 decision to waive a first reading on the policy, with Kraybill, Walker, and Melissa Mason dissenting.

But determining what that convoluted outcome actually meant required some clarification from the board’s attorney.

Effectively, it un-did the final approval of policy 3620 and left it on the table for a second reading. However, the board attorney noted that, because the policy was not initially on the agenda prior to the meeting the board would have to wait until a subsequent meeting for a vote to change or rescind the policy.

Bradford made an additional motion to send policy 3620 back to the policy committee for review. That motion passed 5-to-2, with Walker and Kraybill dissenting. No time frame was a no vote on the policy by the board itself was indicated.

Calendar impasse

Earlier in the night, the board struggled to approve a calendar for the upcoming academic year — and eventually sent the issue back to the calendar committee. While top staff had told the board they needed a decision this week in order to begin planning, board members said they weren’t yet able to find a calendar option that met community needs.

Related: NHC school board postpones calendar decision again

On this topic, at least, board members all agreed on the end result they wanted — but not on the details.

The primary concern is ending the first semester before the winter holiday while still obeying state calendar law and keeping the semesters balanced in length. Board members also wanted to make sure the district's calendar works for 'dual-enrolled' students who are also attending Cape Fear Community College and UNCW.

The board initially considered three options, including one that both ended the first semester before the holidays and obeyed the law — but had one semester 19 days shorter than the other. That means some students would have far less time to complete their coursework than others, depending on the semester during which they took that course.

Board members also debated a darkhorse option, which apparently came from the public, not the calendar committee. This fourth option could meet all the requirements, but would likely require counting elementary school recess as quote “instructional time” — that move would involve a change in board policy, and provoked additional questions and concerns.

During the hour-long debate, staff repeatedly asked the board for clarity on what they wanted, even after board members voted 4-3 to return the issue to committee.

Staff said the calendar committee could convene next week or the week after — setting up another board vote in February.

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. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.