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Top NHCS town hall issues: proposed book-review committee, curriculum concerns

Community members who showed up to the April 18, 2022 town hall.
Rachel Keith
Community members who showed up to the April 18, 2022 town hall.

On Tuesday evening, the New Hanover County School Board held a town hall, which around 60 people attended. The main topics up for debate included what to do about contentious books in the district’s libraries and discussions on race in the classroom.

Prior to the meeting, the district received 556 questions from the public. About 80% came from parents and guardians, the rest were from school staff (10%) and students (5%). [Note: You can find a full list of those questions at the end of this article.]

Eight themes emerged from those pre-submitted questions, according to Josh Smith, the chief communications officer for the district. They included school safety, the budget, access to books, equity, calendar issues, population growth, bullying, and transportation.

Book review committee

During the town hall itself, a majority of the 14 people who were selected to address the board spoke about either the controversial book review committee, proposed by Board Member Melissa Mason, or the teaching of equity in the district.

Related: Four Republicans on NHC school board lay groundwork for controversial book reviewcommittee

Jamie Pond is a district parent who has previously voiced concerns about Mason’s proposed committee.

“As a board member, are you seeking to understand or to be understood, and I asked this in part because our county is very divided. And many of you think you were elected to represent those who voted for you. But in fact, your job is to represent all of us, parents and kids in this county,” Pond said.

But Vice-Chair Pat Bradford responded, “With specifically sexually vulgar books for our younger students, I have issues with that. And the person asked earlier, do we want to be understood, I want to understand why in the world any one of you out there would want a sexually vulgar book in our schools for the kids. I want to know why.”

Bradford has been outspoken on the issue. In the lead-up to the 2022 election, she appeared at board meetings, and read sexually explicit passages taken out of context from books like All Boys Aren’t Blue and Out of Darkness to draw attention to her concerns.

She also mentioned that she, along with Mason, might wait for the House version of the state budget to pass — because it includes a “media advisory” committeethat would offer another way for parents and community members to challenge books in the curriculum.

The language for the local media advisory committees in the House budget bill.
NC Legislature
The language for the local media advisory committees in the House budget bill.

At the outset of the town hall meeting, Bradford told the public to “calm down” about the book review committee, saying that it will take a while for the district to come up with something if the legislature doesn’t. Mason also added she was open to adding more professionals to the committee. As it stands now, the bulk of the committee, seven members, would be from the community — they'd be appointed on a first-come, first-served basis through an online application. It would also include one teacher and a media specialist from the district.

Bradford also said there had been “hysteria” and “inflammatory language” used by the local media on the issue.

The district does already have policies like 3200 and 3210 in place for parents to challenge books — and district librarians, under the direction of the student’s parents/guardians can flag books so that they cannot check them out – and teachers do give students alternate assignments for books or curriculum items that parents find objectionable.

Board Member Hugh McManus said book banning was a top priority for the four Republican members who recently got elected — and that some fear it won’t end there.

“What I hear from other people is this could be a Trojan Horse, to start reviews for everything that goes on curriculum, classroom instruction, different committees, and groups, etc. I think that's the fear that's being created. And once you get a leg in, then everything will be dealt with in that same manner. We don't deal with that; we have staff members we have to trust. We make policy, they enforce it,” McManus said.


In addition to the controversies over books in the libraries, one district parent of a third grader said he was upset by an assignment his son had to complete.

“I want to know if you all think that it is appropriate for a third grader to come home with racism as part of a topic in third grade. That shouldn't be in their vocabulary. Children need to be children. And I know you all feel that way,” he said.

Bradford sympathized with the parent.

“My phone rings constantly with people saying, ‘Guess what happened in school today with my child?’ [...] It's just kind of like the sexual abuse thing. Everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, it's not happening. It's not happening. It's not happening. It's not happening.’ Guess what? It was happening," Bradford said. "So what if CRT [critical race theory] is actually being taught? What if they're telling little children in third grade, that they should hate somebody who's got a different skin color?”

Bradford added that this third-grade parent, along with others, should report this type of teaching so that staff and the board could investigate it. She added that she wanted parents and guardians to copy the board on emails to the teacher or administrator about any teaching practice they take issue with.

But one community member — a person who was one of the four people of color in the 60-person audience, pushed back against Bradford’s statements.

“Hey y'all, I just want to go on record and say as a mixed race person in America I definitely experienced racism in third grade so like whatever that's real whether you want to believe it or not," he said.

He went on to raise questions about the continued racial segregation in the district’s school, referring to a recent report by the Star News.

In response to allegations that the district is teaching Critical Race Theory, Board Chair Pete Wildeboer has also continued to push the idea that the district should pass an anti-CRT policy like Brunswick County.

However, at the outset of the meeting, Board Member Stephanie Kraybill explicitly stated that the district is not teaching CRT — and that it’s not a synonym for ‘culturally responsive teaching’. She also wanted to dispel myths about social-emotional learning or SEL, in that it’s to help students “succeed in their day, to provide them with positive thinking.”

Board Member Josie Barnhart also said to the third-grade parent that the state social studies curriculum passed in 2021 opened the door for teachers to “push a narrative” about history. Barnhart also added that parents should have access to the curriculum, a consistent claim she made throughout the 2022 campaign trail.

But the North Carolina Department of Public Instructions lists the standard course of study for all grade levels in the state. Teachers follow that curriculum guide, and most in the district post their lesson plans on their respective websites. The district also posts a ‘curriculum overview’ for all courses taught.

One Asian American community member, Audrey Penneys, echoed Kraybill’s sentiments by saying SEL is a way to support marginalized people and other people who “don’t look like them.”

After the town hall, Wildeboer said it’s important to have administrators and principals visit classrooms on a regular basis, so they’re in tune with what teachers are doing: “As a former principal, I was able to say a lot of times, if there was a concern, I was in that classroom three times this week, and, they're doing what they're supposed to be doing. So having that transparency with the teachers, with the staff, so that there can be that dialogue at all times.”

This was the first of three scheduled town halls. The next one is slated for August 15, and a third is scheduled for the fall.

Below: Full list of questions received by NHCS prior to the town hall event.

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