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NHC school board set to vote on controversial ethics code next month

August 15 Policy committee meeting
NHCS YouTube
August 15 Policy committee meeting

The New Hanover County Board of Education’s ethics policy is moving forward for a vote in September, but policy committee member Stephanie Kraybill said it micromanages board members’ behavior.

Back in June, the school board sent the contentious proposed ethics code back to committee. This week, board members Josie Barnhart, Pat Bradford, and Stephanie Kraybill debated it.

Kraybill took issue with the board’s attorney Jonathan Vogel, who added language that lets a simple majority censure members — or strip them of committee assignments and other privileges.

The attorney-added paragraphs.
The attorney-added paragraphs.

“It's really kind of putting fear into any board member that feels like they want to talk and represent people from the community that are with us — and we’ve gotten emails from. I’m feeling very, very attacked, but I think our board, we’re trying to micromanage ourselves,” Kraybill said.

Kraybill asked for further clarity as to what privileges would be taken away; however, neither any other board member nor the board attorney outlined what those could be.

But the most concerning to Kraybill was the inclusion of the state law (G.S. 14-230) that outlines how to remove an elected board member when they “fail to discharge their duties” which may “result in criminal charges.”

According to Robert Joyce of the UNC School of Government, this statute outlines that a board member can only be removed by “order of the court.”

Joyce said that this criminal statute is “rarely used,” and the case would be prosecuted by the district attorney — in New Hanover and Pender counties, that’s Ben David. Essentially the school board can’t take these steps themselves, “other than to report the alleged misconduct” to the DA.

“That to me sounds pretty intimidating,” Kraybill said. She added that the board already has a policy (2116) that talks about this.

Barnhart, the policy committee chair, said the paragraphs at the end of the policy is to say that there are “circumstances — and that there are members who are intentionally not following this, then there is a way for the board to address those individuals.”

Kraybill cited the New Hanover County Commissioners’ ethics code as more flexible and said it could be used as a model for the school board because the commissioners aren’t “micromanaging themselves.” She also said the newest members of the board ran against excessive government oversight yet “we are oversighting ourselves to death.”

Bradford said during the meeting that this policy is what is needed to direct the board’s actions because, according to her, the members aren’t being “held accountable.”

“We as a board are stuck. No organization, no entity gets to excellence with ‘rules for thee, but not for me’; ‘do as I say, but not as I do’. There isn't a bonafide reason to reject this, to be afraid of this. The only reason would be that you're afraid that you can't abide by the code of ethics that we have.” Bradford said.

Bradford added for the past three years, the district was “in the toilet” and the school board had “dissolved into chaos and became the laughing stock of the region. Voters expressed their extreme displeasure with that behavior on the board last November when they elected three new people.”

The committee ultimately voted 2-1 to send this policy to the September board meeting for a vote, with Kraybill dissenting.

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