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New Hanover County school board extends Vogel Law Firm contract

NHCS Board on Tuesday, October 3, 2023.
NHCS YouTube
NHCS Board on Tuesday, October 3, 2023.

At Tuesday’s New Hanover County Board of Education meeting, the board voted 4-3 to extend its contract with the Vogel Law Firm until June.

Board Chair Pete Wildeboer previewed the contentious discussion about the merits of the firm.

“It's going to be a tough vote. I mean, there's definitely some room for growth, there's no doubt in my mind on that. But we do need to figure out what we want to do because we do need a good, strong legal firm,” Wildeboer said.

Democratic board members Stephanie Walker and Hugh McManus, and moderate Republican Stephanie Kraybill, said they were concerned about the local GOP’s messaging — which has said that Vogel supports conservative values in the school system.

Below is the message the New Hanover County GOP sent out to its members:

NHC GOP Newsletter
NHC GOP Newsletter
NHC GOP Newsletter

Walker and Kraybill also alluded to Vogel relying on a local firm, Woody White Law, PLLC, to take on additional work the firm can’t handle.

Before his vote to approve the contract, Wildboer addressed these concerns saying, “I'm not going to go into individual accusations on Mr. White or anybody like that. I mean, we never went to Tharrington Smith (board’s former firm) and told Tharrington Smith, that they could hire somebody or they couldn't hire somebody.”

It’s unclear whether White’s firm is under contract with Vogel to do work with the school system. WHQR reached out to Jonathan Vogel and Wildeboer to confirm White’s status and has yet to hear back.

The Vogel Firm’s contract with the district specifically states, “VOGEL shall not assign, subcontract, or otherwise transfer any interest in this Contract without the prior written approval of the Board.”

Previously, White did send a message, which was then echoed by the local GOP, encouraging the board to hire the Vogel firm so that they could “re-caliberate the liberal orthodoxies” in the school system.

Board Member Melissa Mason focused on finances, discussing some lower fees charged by the firm when compared to Tharrington Smith.

The bill from the Vogel firm for July, its first month working for the district, was $32,091. From the records, WHQR has for the Tharrington Smith Law firm, bills from fiscal year 2022-2023 ranged from around $18,000 to $35,000 with an average of $29,041. (Mason referred to one Tharrington Smith legal bill, as a comparison, in August worth $45,459 — although, the full description for the bill states legal services July and August invoices.)

Bradford brought up the fact that Vogel’s bills have been high because there are too many extraneous public records requests he and his firm have to process.

Walker and Kraybill, meanwhile, reiterated that they didn’t trust the firm, and McManus said they are biased in favor of the opinions of the GOP.

Additionally, Kraybill had an extensive critique of Jonathan Vogel and his firm, while sitting right next to him on the dais. She accused him of not being forthright about his standing with his former employer, Cabarrus County Schools, communicating mostly with Wildeboer, Bradford, and Barnhart, not being responsive to other members of the board, and giving incorrect information to the district’s principals about the rights of separated and divorced parents.

Kraybill also claimed that Vogel had pressured the board to hire him on retainer and not on an hourly rate.

The vote to extend Vogel's contract fell along lines that have become familiar at board meetings, with the four more conservative members — Wildeboer, Bradford, Barnhart, and Mason — voting in favor, and Kraybill, a more moderate Republican, and Democrats McManus and Walker voting against.

Other business: policies, tensions, curbing meeting length

In other business, the board passed policies on ethics, meeting agendas, and invocations.

For the ethics policy, Mason introduced a motion that would strike the controversial language that concerned McManus, Kraybill, and Walker, and added a line that discipline rules for the board would follow Robert’s Rules of Order. Kraybill also motioned to strike language around retaliation and overstepping as a board member.

But before the policy passed with these amendments, things became contentious.

McManus said he thought the policy was an attempt to silence elected officials who are in the political minority, and when he mentioned Vice Chair Pat Bradford’s name in the midst of his comments, she immediately called a ‘point of order,’ interrupting him angrily. When Member Stephanie Walker also tried to give her comments, fellow member Josie Barnhart did the same, calling for another ‘point of order’.

Related: NHC Board of Education members clash over ability to speak freely

At one point, Chair Pete Wildeboer told member Stephanie Kraybill she was ‘out of order’ for her comments on the ethics policy.

Other controversial policies like 3210 — parental inspection and objection to instructional materials and 7205 - standards of professional conduct were sent to the policy committee for further discussion.

They also voted to approve several ad-hoc committee recommendations to shorten their meetings. Tuesday night’s meeting lasted five and half hours, but moving forward, the board said they hope to move more staff presentations to their agenda reviews, where they’ll have more time to ask questions and have extended discussions.

The board also voted to move their November meeting to Monday, November 6, as the originally scheduled date, Tuesday, November 7, is municipal Election Day.

Note: This article has been updated to correct the date of the rescheduled meeting.

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