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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

The Trial of Ray Funderburk

Trustee Ray Funderburk presents his defense at a meeting of the Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees called to remove him.
Megan McDeavitt
/
WHQR
Trustee Ray Funderburk presents his defense at a meeting of the Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees called to remove him.

The case against Ray Funderburk was, in one sense, about whether he overstepped his bounds as a community college trustee. But it was, in another sense, about how vocal a trustee can be with criticism — and to what extent they must rely on the college president that they’re also supposed to oversee.

Bill Cherry had the votes. Ray Funderburk was out.

After two and a half hours of presentations, arguments, defenses, questions, and comments, the Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees voted nine to four to declare Funderburk’s seat vacant, less than a year after he was sworn in.

Before calling the vote, Cherry, the board chair, was clear about how he saw the stakes of removing Funderburk.

“If he's allowed to continue on the board, he will defy this board, he will tear down the administration and thus destroy the college,” Cherry said.

These were strong words that seemed to go above and beyond the accusations against Funderburk: making a single public comment that might have disparaged the college and allegedly implying to an instructor that he wanted a student’s grade changed. While Funderburk refuted these specific charges it seemed Cherry was speaking to a deeper issue.

Hours earlier, at the outset of the meeting, board attorney Ken Gray said the proceeding did “not mean that removal is a done deal.” But few people who have followedthe stories coming out of CFCC over the last several years would have been surprised that Funderburk was removed at the end of the evening.

Since his appointment, he had questioned a number of administrative and board decisions — including a raise for college President Jim Morton. In fact, even before his appointment, Funderburk’s term on the college board seemed doomed — despite being unanimously appointed by the New Hanover County Board of Education, powerful players at CFCC made it clear they wanted someone else for the spot.

So, while the meeting was essentially a hearing to determine whether Funderburk had violated policy, it was also about whether he was the type of trustee the board wanted. The answer to that — a resounding ‘no’ — was teased out over the course of the ersatz trial that ended in a surprise allegation, unsupported by evidence, against which Funderburk was offered no real opportunity to respond to or defend himself.

Ground rules for the meeting

At the outset of the Wednesday, March 8 meeting, board attorney Ken Gray laid out the ground rules for the meeting.

He said that the general counsel for the state community college board confirmed that the statute does in fact permit local boards to conduct their own hearing and can remove one of its own if the trustee is “incapable of discharging their duties” or guilty of “disreputable or immoral” conduct.

Gray alluded to the allegations against Funderburk and noted that based on Vice-Chair Jason McLeod’s investigation, Cherry had determined “there appears to be smoke.”

Gray’s remarks were well-prepared and collected, although he did mispronounce Funderburk’s name as “Thunderburk” until he was corrected by County Commissioner and Trustee Jonathan Barfield, Jr.

Gray suggested a format for the hearing, with each party getting 30 minutes to make arguments and rebuttals. He initially suggested time limits of a question period, but Barfield objected.

“My goal is to get at the truth, whether that takes me two hours or five hours, [...] because [...] we're talking about the credibility of someone's character, I think it's important that we get the right amount of time to have those conversations,” Barfield said.

The board eventually agreed to an open-ended question-and-answer period, followed by an opportunity for each trustee to comment for up to three minutes.

But first, McLeod laid out the two main allegations against Funderburk.

Below: Live stream of the first part of the meeting. Note: parts of the meeting took place opposite the podium, but CFCC staff would not allow the media to reposition the camera.

Black student forum comments

The first was a private event held at CFCC for Black students to discuss their time at the college — which, according to Funderburk and others, included positive experiences, but also negative ones, like harassment and discrimination.

According to three anonymous accounts cited by McLeod, at the event Funderburk took the microphone, thanked the organizers and students for putting on the important event, but then asked why the event hadn’t been advertised to the public or been made open to the media.

McLeod would later note that the rationale for this was to create a safe space for students — who might be more hesitant to share their stories with news cameras and microphones present.

McLeod and Funderburk didn’t actually disagree much about what happened at the event, but they did differ profoundly on Funderburk’s intent. Through the evening, the two would go back and forth on this note, with McLeod insisting that it was wrong of Funderburk to voice his concern “in front of 300 people when he should have discussed it with the President.”

Funderburk noted that his comments were generally well-received, and he was thanked for being there, since neither President Morton or any other trustee apparently attended. WHQR spoke to several attendees who agreed with that sentiment and said there was a loud applause after Funderburk asked why the media wasn’t invited.

Funderburk framed his comments as ‘questions,’ or “gentle criticism,” at worst. McLeod framed them as a direct attack on the college and an attempt to imply CFCC was “hiding something.”

Alleged intimidation of an employee

More total time in the meeting was dedicated to the second allegation which was, in short, that Funderburk had used his position as trustee to pressure a CFCC instructor to change the grade for a dual-enrolled student whose poor college performance would make them ineligible for high-school sports.

Funderburk emphatically denied asking for a grade change — and none of the evidence provided by McLeod directly stated that Funderburk had done so.

For example, McLeod cited an email from Ashley High School coach Ben Stroehl to the instructor, which McLeod interpreted to the board as indicating that Funderburk would push for a grade change. But Stroehl actually attended the meeting, and testified that was not the meaning of his email, adding that he did not believe Funderburk would do that.

McLeod’s other piece of evidence was a statement from the instructor involved, which read in part “the amount of correspondence I’ve had with coaches, parents, and a trustee member is troubling.” [...] In all my years of teaching I have never encountered this level of pressure from outside sources to change a grade or offer alternate assignments. [...] While none of these conversations felt threatening, the tone was clear: make an exception despite performance in class.”

The instructor did not explicitly say that Funderburk directly told him to change his grade.

McLeod said he had interviewed the instructor, but Funderburk noted it was conducted without the employee’s supervisor or any other witness, and there was no record of the interview except McLeod’s recollection.

Again, things came down less to the facts and more to the interpretation of the facts. Funderburk admitted to having a short conversation with the instructor to learn more about how CFCC was preparing dual-enrollment students for the challenges of college classes; McLeod construed this as implicitly pressuring the instructor based on Funderburk’s status as a trustee.

“Mr. Funderburk, he's not a dumb person. He's not going to come right out and ask for a grade change, but his actions spoke much louder than he did. It's never appropriate for a trustee to confront an instructor. If he needed to ask about policy that means to come to the administration, to the president's office, not to an instructor, especially because that coach has a relationship with Mr. Funderburk’s [family],” McLeod said.

“A tilted playing field”

Taking the podium after McLeod, Funderburk told his fellow trustees, “I'm starting at a bit of a disadvantage. Mr. Cherry and Mr. McLeod have had hours, days to prepare this case. They've had meetings with all the trustees outlining and establishing what they will say.”

Cherry had acknowledged he had spoken with all the other trustees in one-on-one and one-on-two meetings to avoid a quorum and triggering open meetings law.

Funderburk later told WHQR he was troubled by this, since the trustees would essentially be serving as a jury.

“And I could not find anything in the regulations that said [Cherry] could meet with each member individually and talk to them before they were to sit and supposedly objectively pass judgment on me. And use the metaphor you wish, loaded the dice, stacked the deck, that's what comes to my mind when you think about that. So walking in there, I was already on a tilted playing field,” he said.

Below: Live stream of the second half of the meeting.

Just the facts

Several trustees — namely Deloris Rhodes, Deborah Dicks Maxwell, and Barfield — noted that McLeod’s case against Funderburk was heavy on implication and interpretation and light on facts.

Maxwell noted, in general, there had been a lot of “subjective and not objective” comments.

Rhodes put this point to McLeod.

“As I said before, there were 15 times when you said, ‘I believe,’ ‘in my opinion.’ You said that you just gave the facts — you did not give the facts. Most of these are your beliefs and if we’re going to remove this man from the Board of Trustees, we all deserve the facts, and only the facts,” Rhodes said.

Barfield made a similar point and asked why there were no first-hand witnesses presenting at the hearing.

“What I heard a few times is Jason [McLeod] say the words ‘imply,’ ‘implied,’ ‘in his opinion,’” Barfield said. “I want to confirm those things for myself.”

Barfield said this was not enough evidence, and voiced concern that CFCC could end up in a situation similar to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners’ ill-fated attempt to remove then-commissioner Brian Berger. A judge reversed the board’s vote to remove Berger, and a protracted legal battle cost the county over $100,000.

“So if I'm asked to vote to remove someone based on what I've heard tonight, I couldn't do that. And I know that in the end game I believe the community college is gonna lose financially, having gone through this before, with my board of commissioners trying to remove a board member, and being on the losing side, I think Cape Fear Community College is going to eventually lose financially. And that burden is going to be on the backs of the taxpayers here because the money’s going to come from county government. I understand what you believe. But I need more than just belief,” he said.

McLeod at one point reiterated almost all of his earlier points but did not satisfy calls for additional factual evidence. The fundamental disconnect appeared to be that McLeod felt a written statement was a fact, whereas several of the trustees felt it left too much to interpretation.

“We’d be at home watching TV”

For most of the trustees that felt Funderburk was in the wrong, the issue came down to the fact that he had not gone through President Morton with his concerns, nor asked Morton for information instead of going directly to staff with questions.

“If this had all gone through Jim [Morton], we wouldn’t be all sitting here, we’d be home watching TV,” Trustee Bill Rivenbark said.

Other trustees agreed. Zander Guy shared an anecdote about checking with the administration before visiting staff. Lanny Wilson noted he had attended orientation with Funderburk, which included cautions against overstepping.

Funderburk felt differently. While he said he wasn’t “talking bad about Jim,” he was clear that, “if we sit here and take everything that president tells us as gospel and question nothing and speak to no one else. I don't think that's a good position.”

Deloris Rhodes defended that position, saying, “The only thing that Mr. Funderburk is guilty of is speaking out openly.”

She added that if a trustee wasn’t allowed to express their views, she’d be worried about faculty and staff being able to speak openly.

Cherry's surprise allegations

Before calling the vote to remove Funderburk, Chair Bill Cherry took a few moments to introduce new allegations against him — accusations that had not been previously discussed during the meeting or presented to Funderburk.

“To demonstrate how upside-down Mr. Funderburk is on September 22, 2022, after the first board meeting Mr. Funderburk was taking the elevator to the parking garage with a CFCC employee. Mr. Funderburk volunteered that his job quote was to be a ‘pain in the butt,’” Cherry told the board.

Cherry said that Funderburk was a “rogue trustee,” and then suggested, without evidence, that he had risked CFCC’s accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, known as SACS.

“Because of Mr. Funderburk’s action he has put CFCC at risk with SACS, the accreditation authority, which could lead to loss of accreditations and monies. Mr. Funderburk has, because of his inappropriate actions, has already cost the college massive amounts of time and money trying to defend the college from [his] actions or potential actions,” Cherry said.

Cherry did not explain during the meeting what these costs had been. But Funderburk told WHQR that Cherry had previously blamed him for the costs associated with responding to public records requests from the media and the associated legal costs of redacting documents, which may have been the costs to which Cherry referred.

After a back and forth with Funderburk, Cherry responded that he hadn’t actually spoken to SACS yet — but that he felt they would take action now that the board’s issues with Funderburk were public.

“The damage has already been done by what you have done, in my opinion. [SACS] is gonna come down here and investigate the college. What's going on — what's going on with a trustee that’s out of whack. And they're gonna ask us how we’ll fix the problem, and if we don't fix the problem they're gonna fix it,” he said.

Asked by Funderburk if SACS would say he was the problem, Cherry said, “they could.”

Funderburk added, “they could also say that you’re the problem.”

Cherry responded, “they could.”

In an interview with WHQR, Funderburk said these comments by Cherry “blew him away. It was as if Mr. Cherry was unloading everything from the beginning of my time there. It wasn't about the two events, it was, ‘you've been a problem all along.’”

Funderburk did not get a meaningful opportunity to respond to or defend himself against these accusations. Instead, Cherry called the vote, which just achieved the supermajority necessary to remove Funderburk, despite support from Rhodes, Maxwell, and Barfield.

Cherry declined an interview following the meeting, saying the hour was late. A college spokesperson provided a pre-written statement, which read in part, “the decision to vacate the position of Ray Funderburk, III, as a Trustee is in the best interest of the college and its students.”

When asked, the spokesperson noted that a separate statement had been prepared for the possibility that Funderburk prevailed — but did not provide a copy of that version.

What’s next for Funderburk — and his seat at CFCC?

“I am shocked, and I’m drained now,” Funderburk said in an interview the day after the meeting. “That hearing was anything but fair.”

Funderburk had previously retained attorney Gary Shipman prior to the meeting, but represented himself during the actual hearing. Asked if he would consider further legal action, he said he was keeping his options open.

“I’m not really sure, and I want to think about it,” he said.

New Hanover County Board of Education Chairman Pete Wildeboer issued a brief statement in response to a request for comment: “The New Hanover County Board of Education values its partnership with the Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees, respects its authority, and will follow its direction for filling a vacancy.”

Wildeboer did not answer questions about whether he had communicated with Morton or Cherry during the removal process for Funderburk, nor a question about whether the school board had any potential appointees in mind to fill the vacant position.

While Funderburk was appointed unanimously, the school board looks very different now than it did last summer. Republicans held only two of the board’s seven seats, but now hold five — and the board, in general, leans far more conservative. It is likely the board will at least discuss taking the opportunity to appoint a more conservative member to CFCC.

So, without legal action, Funderburk’s time on the board is well and truly ended. But, in many ways, it seemed like his tenure was always on borrowed time.

A rocky start

Funderburk's tenure as a CFCC trustee seemed precarious even before he took the oath of office last summer.

As the New Hanover County Board of Education was preparing to nominate their appointee to the CFCC Board, they received outside pressure to reappoint Robby Collins. President Morton and Michelle Lee, who directs Morton's office, as well as trustee and County Commissioner Bill Rivenbark made it known to the New Hanover County School Board they wanted Collins, not Funderburk.

But the school board unanimously voted to appoint Funderburk, who took Collins' place in July of last year. Once on the CFCC board, Funderburk was outspoken — more so by far than his fellow trustees.

A prelude?

One of the issues Funderburk weighed in on was the contentious and legally dubious removal of CFCC trustee Jimmy Hopkins, who claimed it was a retaliatory move.

Two months after Funderburk was appointed, New Hanover County Commission Chair Julia Olson-Boseman removed Hopkins from the board over three consecutive ‘unexcused absences’ back in 2020. Her actions were difficult to square with the fact that CFCC maintains it does not track trustee absences as ‘excused’ or ‘unexcused’. Additionally, absenteeism was apparently not enforced equally, since current Trustee Bruce Moskowitz missed three consecutive meetings in November 2020, January 2021, and March 2021 without any consequences.

Hopkins prepared to file a lawsuit against the college but dropped it. But he maintained that he was removed because hehad a disagreement with Morton over the county’s purchase of the former Bank of America building for the nursing program.

Funderburk called for Hopkins to be reinstated, arguing that state statute gives the authority to a college board, not the appointing body — in this case the county commission — to remove a trustee.

When Funderburk tried to have a public discussion of this removal, he was pushed into a closed session instead.

After Hopkins was out, in November, Collins was reinstated by the county commissioners without any discussion.

Morton’s money

Funderburk was the lone dissenting voice when the Board of Trustees voted last year to give Morton a significant 10% raise, making him one of the highest-paid community college presidents in the state at roughly $322,000. This was the second 10% raise in as many years — the first one, in early 2021, was approved while staff received a 2% raise.

Funderburk said he was given no evidence or data to base the raise on, noting that he wasn’t even told what Morton’s existing salary was before being asked to vote on a pay increase.

Morton’s pay has been the elephant in the room for years, but few have publicly questioned it.

In 2018, the CFCC Board of Trustees hired Jim Morton as college president, without conducting a job search — over the objection of several college trustees, including County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, who wanted a formal search to be conducted.

Related: A year later, it's time for another deep dive on CFCC: Finances, firings, and faculty morale

Morton was hired despite the fact that he didn’t meet the required qualifications of previous postings for the position: Morton didn’t have a doctorate, and hadn’t met the required time in college administration.

What Morton did have, according to the trustees who voted him in, was business experience, having served for 15 years as the finance director of Wilmington International Airport. The chair of the board at the time called CFCC a quote “$100- million business" — and Morton said intended to run it that way.

Since his hire, Morton has publicly received nothing but praise from the board.

At the January trustees meeting, Funderburk asked the trustees about Morton’s upcoming evaluation and suggested the board needed to gather data through a staff and faculty third-party survey. Morton and Cherry shut him down.

Silenced again

Then came the resignation of Captain Robert Daniels of the marine technology’s research vessel, the Cape Hatteras, in August last year. The reason: the college abruptly changed the policy surrounding crew’s compensation time. This move ultimately meant the marine tech students couldn’t go out on their over week-long training out at sea, a loss of a valuable experience to prepare them for future employment in their industry.

Funderburk started asking several questions about what happened to make the college change the compensation time. But most of those questions were never answered.

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.
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