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NHC school board requests release of SBI file, asks more questions about law firm

NHC School Board at their May 9, 2023, special meeting.
NHCS YouTube
NHC School Board at their May 9, 2023, special meeting.

On Tuesday, the New Hanover County School Board voted unanimously to formally ask North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein to immediately release the State Bureau Investigation (SBI) file on the school system’s alleged obstruction of justice. The board also settled on legal services for the next six months.

The board directed its current legal firm, Tharrington Smith, to push for an immediate release and, if that isn't possible, then for Stein’s office to state a possible timeline for its disclosure; however, Stein maintains his office hasn’t finished investigating yet. The resolution approved by the board directs the law firm to send a formal letter but it is not litigation (that is, the board is not suing the AG's office for the release of the file).

The investigation stems from allegations that the New Hanover County Schools’ former leadership failed to report teachers — namely Michael Earl Kelly and Peter Michael Frank — who were sexually abusing students. District Attorney Ben David and Sheriff Ed McMahon called for the outside investigation nearly four years ago, in the summer of 2019.

Vice-Chair Pat Bradford said this move would increase transparency, and Board Chair Pete Wildeboer said this would bring the survivors closure if the file was to be released.

Board Member Hugh McManus said some in the public have even blamed the board for not sharing Stein’s report with them.

“I'd like to add, which I've said before, that this [is] unfortunate, [there] is a dark cloud over this entire school system. And then I feel that everything we do or want to do policy-wise, or statements, that somehow people don't feel the genuineness. And we all want this report,” McManus said.

State investigators completed the three-year investigation last summer, but Stein’s office is still reviewing it. Stein recently told WHQR the investigation is “massive.” He said the review is still in process, and no further information can be released until it is complete.

Board hashes out Vogel contract

Board member Stephanie Kraybill introduced a motion for the boardto rescind a vote from its meeting last Tuesday to hire the Vogel Law Firm.

Shortly thereafter, Bradford introduced a motion to avoid considering Kraybill’s motion. Bradford needed a two-thirds majority to take the discussion off the table but didn’t get it.

Kraybill said one of the reasons she wanted the board to review this vote was because, on Monday, May 8, the Cabaruss County School Board formally voted 4-3 not to retain the services of the Vogel Law Firm. They went with one of their two finalists who gave formal presentations to the board, Johnston, Allison Hord, and Middlebrooks Law PLLC. Vogel had touted its contract with Cabaruss to the New Hanover County school board when the firm presented its qualifications.

Bradford maintained that the Vogel Firm is highly qualified — and at one point claimed that Jonathan Vogel didn’t get rehired in Cabarrus because of “secret meetings” being held behind closed doors. The source of this information was one Cabarrus community member who took issue with the legal firm vetting committee meetings.

During Vogel’s April 24 presentation in front of the New Hanover County School Board, Vogel said he was still in the running for Cabarrus, which was his only school board client.

Kraybill called into question his statement, citing the Cabarrus Board of Education minutes from January 9, 2023, in which the board voted unanimously “to terminate the contract with Hartsell & White and Vogel Law and to initiate the 120-day termination clause.”

Kraybill then went further, saying that Vogel’s unclear statements to the board about his future status in representing the Cabarrus Board rose to the level of violating Rule 7.1 from the North Carolina Bar Association in that he made “false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.” Kraybill said she felt Vogel was misrepresenting the status of Jay White of Hartsell & White as Cabarrus's main attorney.

In addition to this, Kraybill, along with board members Stephanie Walker and Hugh McManus, again tried to persuade the other board members that the Vogel Law Firm likely would not have the depth and knowledge base to represent the school district in its upcoming legal cases.

She also said the Vogel Firm wouldn't be cheaper than their current firm; however, the district's Chief Financial Officer is projecting the district will spend around $314,000 on Tharrington Smith this year alone. This is without the litigation hours in the civil case.

Ultimately, Kraybill’s motion to rescind their Tuesday vote didn’t pass.

After that failed, Bradford then moved to have Vogel’s contract be for one year on a monthly retainer, which was the payment method preferred by Vogel.

However, Member Josie Barnhart introduced the idea of having the Vogel on for six months. That gained consensus among the board, except for Bradford.

When Vogel’s monthly retainer option came up for discussion, Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said that the district preferred a billable hours model, as he and his senior staff check itemized bills to see if those legal services had been fulfilled.

Eventually, the board voted 6-1 to retain the legal services of the Vogel Law Firm for six months, with a ‘pay as you go’ model, with Bradford dissenting.

Missing from the minutes: Opposition to the book committee

After the board emerged from their closed session during the Tuesday special meeting, Kraybill asked for the minutes from the April 4 meeting to be amended.

The minutes in question were about the district’s proposed book review committee brought forth by Board Member Melissa Mason.

What the board's minutes reported about their lengthy discussion on the proposed book review committee.
What the board's minutes reported about their lengthy discussion on the proposed book review committee.

Kraybill introduced a motion to include language denoting that there was opposition to the book review committee by herself and McManus and Walker.

The motion passed 4-3, with Wildeboer, Bradford, and Mason not wanting to make Kraybill's change.

While there were public supporters of the committee at the April 4 meeting, ones who were against it slightly outnumbered those in opposition. Further, many of the public comments/questions received before the board’s April Town Hall meeting questioned the creation of the committee.

The board has since debated the committee but has yet to take a formal vote on its establishment.

Upcoming meetings

The board voted unanimously to hold a meeting at Ashley High School after two students were found with weapons on campus.

Josh Smith, the communications director, said that the details are yet to be worked out, but it would be very similar to the community event that was held after the school shooting at New Hanover High School.

Before this discussion, members heard a safety presentation from Assistant Superintendent Eddie Anderson and Director of Safety Chuck Silverstein. They reviewed the security measures in place at some of the district’s schools — and reiterated that if “you see something, say something.”

Anderson encouraged people to use the district’s Say Something App to report suspicious activity.

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