NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Covid-19 gave the Etch A Sketch of the news cycle a thorough shaking, meaning some stories got lost, upstaged, or both — including stories from the troubled New Hanover County Schools district.
Prior to the pandemic, NHCS was in the throes of a different kind of epidemic: as the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) looked into obstruction of justice charges yet another teacher had been arrested on felony child sex charges, half of top administrators had left the district, and the Board agreed to a rushed, unpopular $250,000 severance deal in order to separate with embattled Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley — even though he was still under investigation by a law firm contracted by the Board.
As the pandemic settled in, several stories threaded through this chaotic period went quiet — but they haven’t been forgotten. Lingering questions include: what became of an offer to release former band director Peter Michael Frank’s records? What about calls to rename Holliday Stadium at Laney High School? Has former NHCS attorney Wayne Bullard complied with state laws requiring him to turn over phone records? And what happened to a $5,500 investigative report that was in Bullard’s possession but never seemed to have made it to board members?
Peter Michael Frank’s records
After former Roland Grise band teacher Peter Michael Frank was arrested at the beginning of the year, a search warrant revealed both his disturbing behavior and that the district had ‘counseled’ him for past incidents instead of firing him.
The administration and Board of Education struggled to explain how yet another predator had been allowed to continue teaching in New Hanover County. Facing an increasingly frustrated and angry public, the Board held a press conference in late January to discuss the issue. While little information was provided, Chair Lisa Estep said the Board had voted to release parts of Franks’ personnel record to help address concerns that the district had covered up his behavior.
That information was never released, however, and eight months later the Board now says it has no plans to release Franks’ file, even in part.
The following month, in the wake of Markley’s lucrative exit deal, public pressure grew to change the name of a stadium named for Markley’s long-time second in command, former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday.
A petition with over 4,000 signatures circulated asking to rename the football stadium at Laney High School. The district noted that the process of renaming a facility, if undertaken, would take time, with a six-month lag between posting an ‘information item’ and a final vote. At the same time, questions were raised — but never answered — about why the stadium was named for Holliday while he was still an employee. Naming facilities for active employees was rare, and was eventually prohibited by school policy.
After consulting with then-attorney Wayne Bullard, Estep told petition author Chris Sutton that the board would have to wait one year to rename the facility. However, that response didn’t make sense, since what the policy actually said at the time was that a facility could only be named after a former employee a year after that employee had retired or resigned. Nothing in the policy would prevent, for example, renaming Holliday stadium after a different employee who had been separated for more than a year.
Neither Estep nor the district ever clarified this disconnect. However, taking Estep at her word, over a year has now passed since Holliday’s retirement — but the board has changed its approach.
Holliday Stadium is now apparently part of a larger project of reviewing all facilities names for potentially renaming — this including the Board’s recent decision to rename Walter L. Parsley Elementary School.
According to an NHCS spokesperson, there has been no final decision on reviewing facility names.
Hiding from sunshine: Bullard’s phone records
In March, Wayne Bullard, the Board’s longtime attorney and Holliday’s former right-hand, was accused of intimidation after he repeatedly filmed speakers at board meetings with his personal phone. The day after Port City Daily reported on this, Bullard announced his resignation.
Port City Daily filed a public records request to determine both how much filming and photographing Bullard had done and to determine if he had shared these recordings with anyone. NHCS agreed that, because Bullard was ‘on the clock’ as an attorney during these public meetings, those phone records would be a public document.
However, Bullard has refused to comply with state law. Bullard ignored two letters from the district, requesting that he turn over these records. Bullard has also declined to respond to emails and phone calls.
The Board has declined to respond to questions about whether they condone Bullard’s flaunting of state law — and, while acknowledging that five months later Bullard is still stonewalling, the Board says it has “no further comment” on the situation.
Missing $5,000 report
At the time of Markley’s separation from NHCS, he was still being investigated by the Brooks, Pierce law firm contracted by the Board last year to conduct an internal investigation.
Nearly all of the $20,000 billed by the firm was for two investigations into Markley. The first of these investigations, which cost $14,825.25 and concluded in Fall 2019, confirmed that Markley had retaliated against and attempted to intimidate a parent. As a result, the Board suspended Markley without pay for five days.
The second investigation was in process when the Board signed its separation agreement with Markley. New Hanover County, which provided additional funds to cover Markley’s buyout, was not informed of this at the time.
The investigation had dragged on because, apparently, Markley had managed to evade attorney Jill Willson’s attempt to schedule an interview with him. Wilson did finally set a date up with Markley, for Monday, February 10 — Markley accepted his buyout on Friday, February 7.
So, Wilson stopped the investigation. Instead, she filed an abbreviated report, which cost $5,512, and delivered it to Bullard.
It’s not clear if Bullard turned the report over to anyone at the district, but board members Judy Justice and Nelson Beaulieu said they had never seen the report.
While the district may have considered complaints against Markley ‘resolved’ by his exit, the federal government may not see it that way. There are several open complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR), some of which name former Superintendent Markley — and at least one which concerns the retaliation documented in the missing report.
When the OCR completes its investigation, it’s likely the feds may ask where the report is.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001
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