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"Gut punch": NHC school board, GOP split over renewing Superintendent Foust’s contract

Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust responded to board member questions during the special budget meeting.
Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust responded to board member questions during the special budget meeting.

The decision to extend the contract of New Hanover County Schools superintendent Charles Foust has split the New Hanover County GOP and the conservative candidates it supported in last year's election. One board member called the GOP’s criticism a "gut punch."

In mid-August, school board members renewed Superintendent Foust’s contract for four years. The vote was almost unanimous — Melissa Mason, who campaigned on a promise to fire Foust, voted against it. But the board’s other three conservative Republicans — Chairman Pete Wildeboer, Vice-Chair Pat Bradford, and Josie Barnhart, who had also voiced concerns about Foust during the 2022 campaign — seemed to have softened on the issue.

And that caught the ire of New Hanover County GOP Chairman Nevin Carr.

“This county was not satisfied with Democrats running our school system, so in the last election we rose up and swept the entire school board with Republicans. We expected sweeping changes as a result, and there are none more important than the person in charge of our entire school system. You have every right to be furious with the recent school board decision (1-6) this past Tuesday to extend the contract of Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, a Democrat, for another 3 years [sic],” Carr wrote in an August 22 email to party members, sent about a week after the vote.

Carr called on more Republicans to run in the 2024 election in order to “get conservatives into government positions where they can protect our liberty and stop this freak society the Democrats are currently creating for our kids.”

Carr declined to elaborate on his email, saying he’d rather focus on the board’s positive accomplishments.

“Gut punch”

Vice Chair Pat Bradford called Carr’s email a gut punch.

“We have been hitting this thing as hard as we possibly can … I liken it to we're soldiers in the trenches on the frontline. And we're getting bloody and beat up and battered every day, but we are moving the frontline forward, and we're victorious and we're excited. And then, you know, we check in with base camp. And they gut punch us over the decisions we've made — but we're making progress, we're moving the war forward. And yet the guys back in camp, maybe they're just like playing cards and drinking soda, you know, but they weren't keeping up with what we were doing. And part of that's our fault for not telling everyone what we've been doing. But it it hurt. It did,” Bradford told NHC GOP Podcast host Reuel Sample in late August.

Bradford told Sample she felt that only a small percentage of people agreed with Carr, and defended her vote as a business decision, pointing to a shortage of superintendents and other top administrators around the state, and noting that firing Foust could lead to organizational chaos.

Wildeboer noted that the decision to keep schools operating remotely during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic — something the conservative slate of candidates criticized during the 2022 election campaign — was not Foust’s idea. Both he and Bradford noted that Foust had in fact lobbied to reopen, but the board at that time chose a different approach.

In an email to WHQR, Bradford again defended her “common-sense vote,” but acknowledged she’d changed her mind about Foust.

“It is true, like others, I had laid all the things bad in the district squarely at the superintendent’s feet. Creating a timeline from 1998 of superintendents and events revealed to me Dr. Foust might not truly fit the all things evil label ascribed to him. I saw that his first year was literally a nightmare,” Bradford wrote.

Barnhart also responded to WHQR, and stood by her vote.

“As a member of the Republican Party, I understand and value individuals to have different opinions on specific matters and am always here to listen. As I have stated before I support my decision to renew the contract of the superintendent. Governing as a collective involves the capability to work with lots of individuals and agencies. I will gladly share about accomplishments that have taken place since coming into office,” Barnhart wrote.

Bradford also noted that she had, along with Wildeboer and Bradford, written a joint letter to the GOP touting their accomplishments.

It was a long list — the full letter is below — but some highlights included electing Wildeboer and Bradford to the chair and vice-chair positions, reversing the district’s policy on transgender athletes, hiring “unbiased and highly experienced legal counsel,” and several financial improvements, including securing $5.5 million in capital funding from the county and ‘regaining’ $2 million in general county funding due to a “discrepancy” in the way the county calculates the number of students (county funding is based on a set level of 'per-pupil funding' multiplied by the average daily membership, or ADM).

The county disagreed slightly with that last item.

“On our end, this is more of a show of support for the schools than a discrepancy. Because the county budget is set before the start of the school year, an estimate of the number of students is used to calculate the total funding. For the five fiscal years through 2022, the estimated number of students used in the funding formula turned out to be higher than the actual number of students. For FY 2023, it reversed, and the estimated number of students used in the funding formula was less than the actual number of students. The commitment made to the schools was that if this happens again in FY 2024, the county will true up the formula and fund the schools based on the higher number of students,” a county spokesperson told WHQR.

One vote against

WHQR invited Melissa Mason, the sole dissenting vote, to weigh in on the issue of extending Foust’s contract, but she did not respond. However, she had previously made her position fairly clear, authoring a July 11, 2022 blog post that called for Foust's termination.

Mason’s vote against the contract extension was celebrated and contrasted against the votes cast (and campaign promises made) by Barnhart, Bradford, and Wildeboer, by CapeFearBeacon.com — a website that publishes anonymous analysis and commentary. The site was created by Peter LaFond, a Wilmington-area businessman who helped run Mason's campaign; LaFond declined to reveal the author of the piece.

“The website was created for the specific purpose of anonymity. The authors choose to remain anonymous,” LaFond said.

While Carr’s reaction shared some common ground with the Cape Fear Beacon piece, he said he was unfamiliar with the website. One of Mason's campaign volunteers, Ashley Strand, however, was the first to comment on the piece, writing, in part, "Excellent article!"

Below: A letter from Barnhart, Bradford, and Wildeboer to the New Hanover County Republican Party. 

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correctly identify LaFond and Strand's roles in Mason's campaign.

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.