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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Ousted CFCC trustee says he repeatedly faced pressure to stay silent

Funderburk spoke during his removal hearing on March 8, 2023.
Megan McDeavitt
Funderburk spoke during his removal hearing on March 8, 2023.

Ray Funderburk III was removed from the Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees last week. Now that he’s off the board, he’s sharing two concerning experiences he said happened during his tenure.

The first incident was when Funderburk was called into a meeting with Board Chair Bill Cherry, Vice-Chair Jason McLeod, and board attorney Ken Gray, a week after his dissenting vote on President Jim Morton’s salary raise.

The second incident came after Funderburk criticized the unceremonious removal of former trustee Jimmy Hopkins. When Funderburk publicly questioned the legality of the removal at CFCC’s November board meeting, he was quickly pushed into a closed session by McLeod and Cherry. That session was purportedly called to allow board members to ask legal questions of Gray, a legitimate reason under state law. But Funderburk said it had little to do with attorney-client privilege, and instead quickly deteriorated into a collective diatribe against him by his fellow trustees.

Pushback after Funderburk’s dissenting vote on Morton’s salary

Shortly after Funderburk was sworn in as a new trustee, the board prepared for its bi-monthly meeting in July. On the agenda: another raise for Jim Morton.

Right before that meeting, Funderburk said he received three phone calls, two from Cherry and one from Michelle Lee, the board liaison and executive director of the President’s Office.

He said in each of these phone calls he was “urged” to vote in favor of the raise. He said he was both “bothered” and “puzzled” by the calls, and said he mainly just listened to what they had to say.

When it came time for the vote, Funderburk said that he never received any information that would warrant the significant salary increase – the second 10% raise in two years — so he voted against it. Morton is one of the highest-paid college presidents in the state; local taxpayers are essentially paying for half of Morton’s $322,584 salary, the state pays the rest.

Right after the vote, Funderburk gave a comment to WHQR and WECT. About a week later, Funderburk got a call from Cherry.

“Cherry says, ‘I want to talk to you about what you said to the press.’ I said, ‘Oh, am I not supposed to talk to the press?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you're not supposed to talk to [the] press.’ I said, ‘I didn't see that in the bylaws,'” Funderburk told WHQR in an interview last week.

While CFCC’s employee handbook notes faculty and staff are not allowed to speak freely to the media without prior approval from the community relations office, the board of trustees bylaws make no mention of restrictions on speaking with the press.

Shortly after the phone call, Cherry requested a meeting with Funderburk. When Funderburk walked into the room with Cherry, he was joined by Vice-Chair McLeod and Gray, the attorney.

“So immediately, I get these alarms going off my head, ‘What's going on?” Funderburk said. He said he asked Cherry, “Do I need counsel?”

According to Funderburk, Gray informed him that he didn’t and Cherry then told Funderburk he doesn’t speak for the board.

Funderburk said he responded, “I know. I was explaining a vote I made which the public should know why because we're spending money.”

Funderburk then said Cherry reiterated that as board chair, he was the only one supposed to talk to the press.

Over the last several years, Cherry has not responded to any of WHQR’s numerous requests for comment. Even following Funderburk’s removal last week, he issued only a pre-written statement.

Costing the college money

Cherry put another accusation to Funderburk at this private July meeting with McLeod and Gray — one that he would bring up again at Funderburk’s hearing for removal in March.

According to Funderburk, Cherry told the new trustee he had ‘cost the college a lot of money’ from having to respond to public records requests and, presumably, the legal costs of redacting responses to those requests.

Funderburk told Cherry, McLeod, and Gray those costs weren’t his fault.

In fact, the college’s significant legal bills predate Funderburk. According to public records, the average legal bills spiked more than tenfold after WECT reported on the allegations about the toxic workplace under President Morton — from roughly $2,000 a monthto $19,000 in January and $27,000 in February of 2020. CFCC initially tried to stonewall WECT, refusing to provide itemized legal bills but eventually turning over heavily redacted versions to Port City Daily.

Confronted with ‘costing the college money,’ Funderburk said he was confused about Gray’s role. But it was clear, he said, that after one week on the board, he wasn’t on Cherry’s good side.

“It was obvious that Mr. Cherry did not like me, did not like my answers, did not like the fact that I was standing up to him. He was angry. And he was angry on [March 8] also,” Funderburk said, referring to the hearing where he was removed from his position as trustee.

Between taking a seat on the board in July of last year and his removal last week, Funderburk made other public statements, although he spoke only for himself, not the board. That included questions about changes to the prestigious marine tech program that forced the college to scuttle an entire semester of ocean research. It also included a call to reinstate fellow trustee Jimmy Hopkins, who was removed under the dubious authority of then-County Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman; Hopkins suggested the move was retaliation, saying it directly followed a disagreement between him and President Morton.

Funderburk said he doesn’t regret speaking out, but now thinks he should have been more careful.

Funderburk said, “the statement about marine tech was my job. The statement about Jimmy Hopkins was definitely my job because I was part of the board. I have no problem making those statements. If they want to hold it against me, that's fine.”

He added, “from the beginning, I had a target on my back, and I should have been more careful. I should have recorded things.”

WHQR requested comment from Cherry and Gray for their version of the events described by Fundeburk. They have yet to respond.

Legitimacy of the November closed session

The second major red flag, according to Funderburk, was during the November board meeting when Cherry, McLeod, and Gray pushed him into a closed session after he tried to publicly discuss Hopkins’ removal.

Legal experts, including Amanda Martin of Duke Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, say that under North Carolina law closed sessions are allowed to discuss protected personnel issues or to ask for legal advice from the board attorney. Martin noted that “any discussion (as opposed to receiving legal advice) would need to have been in open session.”

But Funderburk said the closed session was a farce — because there were little to no questions directed at Gray.

“The closed session on Mr. Hopkins was essentially a discussion among trustees that was an out-and-out attack on me for causing trouble,” Funderburk said.

Funderburk claims the closed session was mostly the trustees asking him why was he being vocal about Hopkins.

“They essentially asked me, why I was doing this? [...] And they said, ‘why do you want to bring this up?’ And you know, some of that was essentially just anger,” Funderburk said.

“And the whole getting rid of Jimmy Hopkins, that it was just here today gone tomorrow,” Funderburk said.

It wasn’t the last time Funderburk was shut down before he was ultimately removed. In January, during his last meeting as a trustee, Funderburk tried to remind the board that Morton’s evaluation was coming up and suggested that they needed to do a third-party independent survey – something Morton and Cherry have successfully resisted for several years.

“And it was shut down so quick, and I'm sitting there thinking, ‘What is wrong with that?’ That's a flag right there,” Funderburk said.

Below: Audio of Ray Funderburk, interviewed by WHQR's Rachel Keith.

Funderburk's interview on the pushback he faced on his dissenting vote on Morton's salary -- and the closed session, which according to him, should have been open.

Funderburk responds to the night of his removal

Funderburk was removed after being accused of pushing a CFCC instructor to improve a dual-enrolled student’s grade so they could continue playing high school sports. He was also accused of ‘placing the college in disrepute’ by criticizing CFCC during a Black student forum. The event, held during Black History Month, was closed to the public. Near the conclusion of the forum, Funderburk addressed the crowd, asking why the media had not been invited. Funderburk said he considered it an honest question, but the board accused him of insubordination for going around President Morton with his concerns.

“The allegations were very serious, but they were false,” Funderburk said, comparing the hearing to a ‘star chamber,’ and noting that he was repeatedly confronted with anonymous allegations.

Related: The Trial of Ray Funderburk

Funderburk maintains that he spoke to the instructor, briefly, to learn about CFCC’s policy on preparing high-school-age students for college-level work, and categorically denies having ever asked for a grade change during this, or any other incident.

Funderburk said it continues to bother him that the instructor was interviewed alone by Vice-Chair McLeod, despite the instructor’s request that his dean be present, and that there was no record of the interview aside from McLeod’s account.

“It’s a legitimate ask, you want a witness if you're going in with a boss. That means it's a one-on-one, and you have to trust whatever because I was forbidden from even contacting the instructor. But that's fine. I'll say this, he [the instructor] had a terrible time. I understand that,” Funderburk said in an interview last week.

Asked if he now regrets having spoken to the instructor at all, Funderburk said, “Yes, and no. When we talk about the past, I knew that they pretty much were going after me, or wanted a reason to get rid of me. They didn't want me there in the beginning. And I gave them one. And it's not what happened, but they were able to make it into what happened. And that bothers me.”

Funderburk also reflected on the end of the removal hearing, when Cherry presented fresh allegations, without giving him time to rebut them. These included an anonymous account of a comment Funderburk allegedly made following a September meeting, saying that he saw his role on the board as being “a pain in the butt.”

“I don't remember; I may have said that. And I may have been joking to somebody, but that's fine. So what that shows is he's been looking for me for a while,” Funderburk said.

Cherry also forcefully suggested that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which accredits higher-education institutions including CFCC, would investigate the college because of Funderburk’s actions. SACS confirmed emphatically to WHQR that it was not investigating CFCC, writing “NO” and “THANKS” in all caps.

Funderburk said that faculty and staff came to trust him and that he was available to listen to their concerns about the college. But Funderburk said they don’t feel the same way about leadership in general.

“Most of the people who have talked to me from CFCC have said, ‘Please don't use my name, I am very scared that I will get fired.’ So if you go through the President that scares them,” Funderburk said.

For Funderburk, that made him concerned about the way the majority of trustees handled their oversight responsibility — getting all of their information from President Morton, and relaying any concern through his office.

“When you're relying on one source, one thing, you're only getting that report. And that, to me, is common sense. If we just said, ‘everything the President said is true,’ and we'll sit here and listen and agree, I don't think that would be very successful,” he said.

Funderburk said he continues to admire the work of the staff and faculty — but that he is also unsettled.

“And certainly their jobs are not really secure. [...] The people who do the work, do it in spite of the people at the top, not necessarily because of them,” Funderburk said. He added that CFCC like other educational organizations tends to focus on “buildings and things” and not necessarily those who do the work. And those people who work under this administration are “scared.”

Funderburk said he’d received overwhelming feedback from his former high school students and community members, who reached out directly or on social media.

“I have been blown away. I taught for a long time, and my former students didn't just put likes or hearts, they wrote long paragraphs saying, ‘I can't believe this is happening to you, Mr. Funderburk. You taught with integrity,’” he said.

But, now that both he and Hopkins are off, Funderburk said, “It's it almost seems to me they're shaping the board to do what they want to do.”

Below: Audio of Ray Funderburk, interviewed by WHQR's Rachel Keith and Benjamin Schachtman, and WECT's Zach Solon.

Funderburk's reaction to his March removal hearing.

Reactions to Funderburk’s removal

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who also sits on the state’s community college board, said he was troubled by last week’s events.

“I will say, in my 17 years in Raleigh, in the House of Representatives, the Secretary of Commerce, and now as State Treasurer, I don't think I've ever heard of a trustee being removed. And now lightning has struck twice in the same institution in a short period of time,” he said.

Asked if he thought the college needed more oversight, Folwell said he was skeptical about whether that would help.

“What strikes me, especially after last week, is that the President of the Community College, and maybe some others, just don't really care what the North Carolina Community College System or its board has to say, or would have to say about anything going on there,” he said.

Folwell said there was a real “sadness” around Funderburk’s removal, in part because it distracted or took away from the quality work being done at the college by faculty and staff.

Tannis Nelson, president of the North Carolina Association of Parliamentarians, noted that if the board had legitimate concerns about Funderburk it could have chosen a less extreme option, noting that the “highly severe action” taken by the board should have been backed by concrete evidence.

“If the trustees believed a fellow trustee had taken inappropriate action or said something inappropriate, a censure may have been far more fitting than executing a state statute, ‘going for the jugular,’ to remove one,” she said.

During the removal hearing, trustee Deloris Rhodes suggested the board could take less severe action — but it was clear that the majority of the board did not want to settle for a censure.

Isaac Reeves VII, the vice president of the marine technology club and current CFCC student, said that the “trustees were disappointing to watch. [...] Within the context of recent events involving [them], it seems more likely that petty politics were the cause of his removal — specifically, his opposition to several actions taken by the Board, including academic policy changes that would have negatively affected a notable program [e.g. marine technology], a fellow trustee's removal from the Board, and the specifics surrounding the Board of Trustees’ employee CFCC President Jim Morton, and his salary.”

Reeves added there could be a discussion over the merits of Funderburk questioning the lack of a media presence at the student forum and said he understood the concerns over Funderburk’s comments to the instructor about high school students taking college-level courses. But Reeves said Funderburk's removal was “not unexpected given past behavior from the Board of Trustees, and Jim Morton.”

Another marine tech student, Blue Takagi, said of Funderburk, “it was a bit concerning to me that he only trustee who actively spoke out in favor of my program and was the only trustee who appeared to do anything at all to question the leadership of the college.”

Takagi added, “Now that he's gone, what happens if something like this happens again? Then we won't have anyone on the board trying to support our program.”

Takagi also said that the Black student forum was a situation where people in the audience were “‘invited to take the mic, make comments about the diversity and about experiences at the school,’ in which the student representatives were talking about ‘feeling like they don’t belong [at CFCC] or feeling like [it’s] a place where they are welcomed.’”

WHQR also reached out to the state community college board members who represent the 15 counties in southeastern North Carolina, Lisa Estep and Ann Whitford, for an interview. Estep said she would put HQR in touch with State Board Chair Burr Sullivan.

Sullivan said, “the State Board of the NC Community Colleges considers this a local matter that was handled by the Cape Fear Board of Trustees in accordance with the statutes governing such issues. The State Board has no comment on this local matter.”

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