© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

NHCS school board sends invocation, ethics policies back to committee, spars over legal services

The New Hanover County Board of Education during its September 5, 2023 meeting.
The New Hanover County Board of Education during its September 5, 2023 meeting.

The New Hanover County Board of Education was split on two policies — but not along traditional ideological lines. Board members also dealt with a surprise attempt to extend the contract of their recently-hired law firm.

At last night’s New Hanover County Board of Education meeting, members kicked two controversial policies back to committee.

The first would have allowed them to give religious invocations at meetings. According to Board Member Josie Barnhart, who also chairs the policy committee, policy 2315 was drafted in part to respond to a complaint from the ACLU and in part was based on conversations in the community.

Board Member Stephanie Kraybill said she was “vehemently opposed” to a provision in the policy that would allow the members to give the invocation if no faith leaders had signed up for a given meeting, adding that “maybe we could just read an inspirational passage.”

Related: WHQR reporter Rachel Keith on new policies at New Hanover County Schools on the Cape Fear Rundown podcast

Kraybill also challenged board attorney Jonathan Vogel, asking why the case Lund v. Rowan County — where the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found it was unconstitutional for county commissioners to have the sole right to reading invocations — was not cited in the policy along with the other guiding court decisions.

Board member Stephanie Walker also voiced concerns, noting that the policy was unlikely to pass, and asking anyone watching the meeting to forward their own concerns to the board.

While Kraybill is a Republican, she has frequently side with the board’s two Democrats, Walker and Hugh McManus (who was absent at Tuesday’s meeting). Last year,Kraybill was censured by the New Hanover County GOP for crossing party lines on several issues.

But Melissa Mason, a conservative Republican, also took issue with the policy.

“I think that we sit up here, in a position of authority, and I – though it may be legal — am not sure of the ethical ramifications of it, because we do have a position of authority, and when you have that position you do have the power to influence, and I think we need to be careful of that,” Mason said.

Mason has voted regularly with the rest of the conservative slate of Republicans who swept the 2022 school board elections – namely Chair Pete Wildeboer, Vice-Chair Pat Bradford, and Barnhart. But she was the sole dissenting vote when the board voted to renew Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust’s contract for four years – notable because it spared her the scorn of the county GOP, which harshly criticized Wildeboer, Bradford, and Barnhart.

Mason also voted against the second item, a revised ethics policy.

The policy had caused concern, in part because it contained the threat of criminal prosecution (although it’s not clear how actionable that would be, the statute cited would require the District Attorney to prosecute).

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

On Tuesday night, Board member Stephanie Walker criticized policy 2120 as attempted intimidation. She said it was “even worse than it was when we asked for it to be sent back.”

Legal fees and contract

The board also heard an explanation of legal fees from the Vogel Law Firm, which the district recently hired its legal representation. Board member Stephanie Kraybill asked why the line items for $32,000 in fees from Vogel’s first month on the job had been completely redacted. Staff said it had been done to save time to prepare the bills for the meeting. Vogel told board members he was happy to discuss unredacted line items in private.

Although there was no vote slated on the agenda, board member Josie Barnhart put forward a motion to extend Vogel’s 6-month contract on a retainer basis to a full year — both Kraybill and Walker objected to the motion being presented without prior notice, since it was listed on the agenda as an informative item. Chairman Pete Wildeboer said that, technically, since the item was listed under “old business,” it could be voted on.

During a discussion, Vogel said the actual monthly retainer rate didn’t need to be part of the vote. He said his firm had initially offered a retainer rate of $22,500 but after learning “how busy” the district was and looking at invoices from the district’s prior attorneys, he felt a $28,000 retainer would cover all of his firm’s services, not including litigation and investigation matters.

Vice-Chair Pat Bradford defended the decision to extend Vogel’s contract after two months on the job as good business practice. She argued that if the board waited until December, they risked being left without legal representation. Bradford condemned the pushback over Vogel’s contract as “partisan stuff.”

The motion died after a tie vote.

Call to the audience

The call to audience segment featured many residents who were upset over last week’s decision by the board to ban the book Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You from an AP classroom — although a few spoke about the decision as a victory for the community.

New Hanover County Democratic Party Chair Jill Hopman was among the speakers; she suggested that the district’s new law firm — which she referred to as the “underqualified law firm that you overpay” — had left them exposed to litigation by advising them to allow a book ban. Hopman told WHQR that the county Democratic party would be speaking with the ACLU and that if they or a similar organization took up a suit over the book ban, the party would support it.

Dr. Kimberly Hardy, the second vice-chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, introduced herself as the “highest ranking African American woman in North Carolina politics right now.”

“No one book speaks for any one particular population, the book Stamped is a very accurate representation of the history of African Americans and racism in this country,” Hardy said. “At no point has a valid and educationally sound argument been made relative to a ban on this book.”

Former school board vice-chair Nelson Beaulieu, who had been the target of criticism from the audience podium many times when he was in office, once fleeing as a meeting he was chairing descended into chaos, levied his own critique at the board. After telling the board “this isn’t personal” and thanking them for their service, he called the Stamped hearing a “joke” and a “disaster,” comparing it unfavorably to the first day of Kindergarten.

“Think of the absurdity of the precedent you have set, that now exists in New Hanover County. A single parent, with a single complaint, about part of a curriculum, can now be granted an opportunity to air this ignorance and imbecility before this board for five hours,” Beaulieu said. “How would you even begin to deny another parent’s request for appeal after you have granted this one on such pathetically weak grounds?”

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to identify Vogel as NHCS's general counsel, not in-house attorneys.

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.