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NHC school board approves staff climate survey, establishes safety committee

NHCS board on April 9, 2024.
NHCS YouTube
NHCS board on April 9, 2024.

At Tuesday’s New Hanover County School Board meeting, members voted unanimously to conduct a districtwide climate survey of all employees. The board is working on some suggestions for questions, including topics such as discipline, safety, and overall morale.

About 91% of teachers and administrators recently took a statewide working conditions survey. The results should be out by late June, but the board wanted a more localized read on the district’s climate.

Board member Hugh McManus said, “I'd like to get a pulse on our staff regarding discipline, safety, what's going on in their own schools, and collectively as a school system. I think, as some people say, ‘get a pulse’ or whatever you want to call it, how you want to label it; I think that's the right thing to do.”

The last time the board undertook a local survey was in December 2021. About a third of the district’s employees took it — and of those respondents, only 28% said the district “valued them.”

The board discussed rolling out the survey soon, as the end-of-the-year testing begins next month. The communications and human resources departments are slated to plan the survey’s logistics and analyze the results.

However, McManus said he wanted to ensure the survey would be anonymous and staff needed to feel “safe” when giving feedback. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Christopher Barnes said he could not trace the identity of any employee who responded last time.

The board establishes a safety committee

Board member Pat Bradford introduced a motion to create a safety committee after a series of district students brought guns to school. (*You can find articles on some of these instances at the end of this report.)

The board voted 6-1, with Board member Stephanie Kraybill dissenting, to create this committee. Kraybill said making this would be redundant and instead suggested using board work sessions or interim meetings to focus on improving safety measures.

Kraybill added that this was a “superfluous approach” and that the board was “getting out of our lane of governance.” However, Bradford continued developing ideas for the new committee, saying she wanted to create three subcommittees. These ideas included behavior, accountability/discipline, attendance, mental health, and trauma.

An update on freezing local funds for supplies, travel

Chief Financial Officer Ashley Sutton also addressed a recent memorandum about freezing local funds for supplies and travel. She said this measure was an extra layer of accountability, and that principals could fill out an emergency funding form if needed. Sutton added that this, too, would deter staff from spending all their budget before the year ended. The hope, Sutton said, is to use some of these remaining supply and travel funds to help replenish the district’s fund balance.

Bradford said of the memo, “What other surprises are around the corner? [...] This is a big, giant crisis that gets worse instead of better.” She had added this item to the board’s agenda earlier in the evening.

WHQR acquired the memo Tuesday morning and asked the district and board for additional context. It wasn’t until Sutton’s explanation at the board meeting that the district released a statement:

“We establish year-end purchasing deadlines every year to ensure we meet all state and federal purchasing requirements before the next fiscal year begins. This deadline is normally at the end of May, but due to the budget challenges this year, we moved it up to the beginning of April. We have a responsibility to ensure that every dollar spent supports the highest quality education while also allowing us to balance the budget for the next fiscal year. By implementing local fund restrictions, we are taking proactive steps to assess our current needs, optimize our spending, and ensure the long-term fiscal health of the district.”

The New Hanover County Association of Educators and New Hanover For All are holding a Teacher Donation Drive at the Walmart on Sigmon Road on Saturday, April 20, from 10 to 4. They’re asking for disinfectant wipes, disinfectant spray, hand sanitizer, paper towels, band-aids, tissues, and liquid soap.

Legal discussions

In light of the district’s tight budget, Bradford proposed ending the additional legal contracts with the Sink Law Firm and Poyner Spruill. The motion failed, with Bradford and Mason supporting the end of those contracts.

Bradford also removed several contracts from the consent agenda for approval, claiming the board’s attorney, Jonathan Vogel, had not reviewed them.

“I’m deeply concerned,” she said, adding that the board’s attorney needed to be involved in all contract sign-offs.

Bradford asked Vogel if he had seen them, to which he replied, “No.”

However, senior staff including Sutton and Assistant Superintendent Eddie Anderson said Vogel had approved prior vendor contract templates with the terms and conditions. Sutton said staff had changed only the vendor name and pricing.

Wildeboer asked Vogel whether that was true and he said, “Yes.”

Just one of the contracts, “Network Solutions LLC” wasn’t a template. Assistant Superintendent Dawn Brinson apologized and said she hadn’t sent it to Vogel yet. The 9-year contract for $462.05 was to renew the nhcs.net domain. The board voted to approve that one at a later date.

Students bring up the future of class rank, audience calls

Members of Student Voice, including Cassidy Thompson, Samin Bhan, and Molly Mathis, chose to present the future of class rank to the board.

All three students said that based on their research, they’d like the board to reconsider how the district uses class rank, even questioning whether it’s necessary. They cited research from the American Psychological Association and the College Board that these rankings can hurt students' mental health.

Bhan cited the advantage he’d received by attending a private middle school, where he could rack up higher-weighted courses that put him ahead in high school. He added that while in high school, he chose to further his rank rather than take classes aligned with his interests.

Thompson chose orchestra courses because of her passion but said her GPA suffered because no AP or IB music courses were offered.

The board agreed that they’d like to look into the future of this — and Mathis told WHQR they’re still conducting interviews with staff and students and are hoping to compile a more comprehensive report on the subject.

Additionally, over a third of the ‘Call to the Audience’ participants, who were associated with the Love Our Children organization, called for policy 4351 to be changed to mandate administrators to call pre-K through second-grader parents or guardians before suspending them.

Prior reporting on weapons in schools

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