Orange County school board’s 4 men vote against 3 women to oust chairwoman

Brenda Stephens was voted out as Orange County Board of Education chairwoman Monday night, May 6, 2019.
Brenda Stephens was voted out as Orange County Board of Education chairwoman Monday night, May 6, 2019.

Was it misogyny, as some alleged? A conflict of interest?

The Orange County Board of Education was rocked by a sudden reorganization this week, when the board’s four men voted against the three women to oust the chairwoman with only three meetings left in her term.

“The men made a unilateral decision about what they wanted, and they executed it without consulting the women,” board member Hillary MacKenzie said in an interview.

Others say the move was over ethical concerns surrounding alleged racial discrimination at an elementary school.

“The chair had a significant conflict of interest on a district matter,” new Chairman Will Atherton said.

The meeting

Brenda Stephens, the board chair until Monday, surprised almost everyone, when she announced that, before the meeting, board members Atherton and Stephen Halkiotis had approached her about choosing a new chair.

The board was already prepared to select a new vice chair because Sarah Smylie had stepped down for personal reasons, MacKenzie said.

Atherton said he thought most board members knew the move was coming.

In the weeks leading up to the planned vote on a new vice chair, Atherton said board members contacted each other individually to express interest in one of the leadership positions. He said he made it clear to other members that he was interested in becoming the chairman.

“The way this works is; there’s no discussion,” Atherton said. “You just go into the meeting and vote.”

In two 4-3 votes Monday night, both split along gender lines, Atherton was elected chair and Tony McKnight was elected vice chair.

Stephens received the women’s three votes for chair, and MacKenzie received the women’s three votes for vice chair.

Short-term vote

Board policy requires reorganization every July, so Stephens and Smylie only had three meetings left as chair and vice chair.

Board member Matthew Roberts made a motion to waive board policy 2200 so their replacements could remain in power until 2020.

The district has big decisions coming up, he said, like redistricting and searching for a new superintendent after Todd Wirt’s recent resignation. Stephens, however, said the board won’t be doing anything on the superintendent search for the next three meetings.

Waiving the policy required five votes, but Roberts’ motion only received four — from all the men.

Stephens has been on the board for over 15 years, and her current term as a board member runs until 2022.

“If they want to hijack my last few weeks [as chair], that’s fine,” she said at the meeting.

“They can take the chair, but they cannot take the voice,” she said.

Conflict of interest

Atherton said his desire to reorganize the board “had nothing to do with gender, race or anything like that.”

He pushed for an early vote on chair for two reasons.

One was that one of the female board members would be on sabbatical for the July vote, and he wanted to make sure everyone was present. He said he didn’t know why all female members voted to keep the reorganization vote in July.

Atherton also said he was concerned about alleged racial discrimination at Cameron Park Elementary School.

Indy Week recently reported that an official Orange County Schools investigation had confirmed multiple incidents of discrimination at Cameron Park. Atherton said the article was the first time the board had heard of an official investigation. This investigation was led by Seth Stephens, who is Brenda Stephens’ son as well as chief communications officer for the district.

Board policy allows immediate family members to work together in the district as long as one is not directly reporting to the other. Seth Stephens reports to the superintendent, who reported to Brenda Stephens while she was board chair.

Atherton said the board unanimously agreed to order an independent investigation of both the original incidents and Seth Stephens’ report, which Indy Week said confirmed discrimination had taken place.

“Orange County Schools’ Board of Education has now reviewed the complaint and administrative report and are left with substantial questions and deep concerns about many facets of this situation,” the board said in a letter to parents April 27. “For this reason, a comprehensive, independent review of all aspects of both the parent’s complaint and the administrative review of the complaint has been authorized.”

The second investigation is still ongoing, but Atherton expects it will be released later this summer.

Atherton said Brenda Stephens was asked to recuse herself from conversations about these investigations during closed sessions of the board but that she refused.

MacKenzie declined to speak about the closed sessions, but she said district lawyers were present and she does not believe there were any ethical violations.

“I do not think there was any reason that Brenda needed to be removed from her chair position before July,” MacKenzie said.

Brenda Stephens declined to comment this week about Monday’s vote and did not respond to to an email message Wednesday asking her to respond to Atherton’s saying she had a conflict of interest.

Efforts to reach Seth Stephens Wednesday by his work phone and office email were also unsuccessful. An automated email response said he was out of the office and a person answering the school-district phone could not provide another phone number for him.

Ethics complaints

MacKenzie said Monday’s upheaval was part of a pattern of misogyny. MacKenzie filed an ethics complaint against Halkiotis in March, claiming he yelled at her in a board retreat.

“I said something he didn’t agree with, and he yelled at me to ‘grow up young lady’ and stormed out of the building,” MacKenzie said.

Halkiotis filed an ethics complaint against MacKenzie in response, but she said he later dropped it.

MacKenzie said she is most concerned about the students.

“When you have a group of men who are silencing women on the board and unseating a woman of color, it makes you wonder how they’re listening to underrepresented students in the district,” MacKenzie said.

Atherton said he was shocked by MacKenzie’s take on events and pointed out this was only the second time all year the board’s vote had been split along gender lines. The other vote was on dress-code restrictions.

Atherton provided texts from MacKenzie that asked for his support for the vice chair position. “I’m asking for your vote for vice chair if we do a complete reorganization,” the text read. “I’d appreciate knowing where you stand before tonight. Thanks for considering.”

MacKenzie said she did text Atherton about the vice chair position but got no response.

“Really the bottom line is, they never talked about this action with us,” she said.

Multiple efforts to reach McKnight and Halkiotis for comment were unsuccessful.

Moving forward

Community members were surprised by the reorganization.

“It was a power grab, for sure,” said Latarndra Strong, an Orange High parent and member of the district’s equity task force. “Things are not going well on that board. ... Politics in our district are so strong it’s interfering with educators’ ability to educate.”

Video: In advance of the Orange County school board's decision on Monday, the founder of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, Orange County, Latarndra Strong, shares the story of how it all began, on Tuesday, June 6, 2017, in Chapel Hill, NC.

In a public Facebook post, Hillsborough Town Board member Jenn Weaver said she watched part of the meeting in disbelief.

“Watching it felt like stepping back in time,” she wrote.

“I saw an African-American woman and long time public servant ousted from her position of leadership with no explanation by those who sought to do so,” she wrote. “I saw the most ardent voices for advancing racial equity sidelined. I saw women sidelined. The optics alone were awful.”

The Rev. George Crews III, senior pastor at Lattisville Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Hillsborough, has been working with Justice United to promote racial equity in the school system, specifically around the district’s hiring practices.

“I’m concerned about the work that we have put in so far building a relationship with the school board,” Crews said. by email. “To see so many changes, so abruptly — it’s disheartening. But we are still committed. This community is still committed to the children and the employees of Orange County Schools.”

Crews invited Halkiotis and McKnight to a meeting of Justice United leaders at his church on Thursday, and urged them to pursue more money for equitable hiring practices.

Allison Mahaley, leader of the faith in action team for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Hillsborough, has also been organizing with Justice United to promote a diverse and inclusive staff in the district. She hopes the conversation about equity continues through the board’s transitions.

“I think the optics of it are unfortunate for the district,” Mahaley said. “We know that we’re still committed to the goals and objectives that we’ve laid out.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer