Orange County school board controversy –to say the least

Misogyny. Racism. Conflicts of interest. Power grabs. What am describing? Just a local school board.

At its meeting earlier this week, the Orange County Board of Education abruptly reorganized itself, voting 4-3–along gender lines– to replace board chair Brenda Stephens, who only had three meetings left in her term, according to the board’s reorganization rules. Board member Will Atherton will now be the new chairman.

A lot going on here–the gender-line vote sparked accusations of misogyny from a female members of the board:

“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.

….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.”

The vote follows the “pattern of misogyny” that began according to MacKenzie– when fellow board member Stephen Halkiotis “yelled at her” to “grow up young lady” at an earlier

Atherton said “the chair had a significant conflict of interest on a district matter.” That matter is an investigation of racial discrimination at Cameron Park Elementary School. The investigation is being led by Seth Stephens, who is the district’s chief communications officer and–you guessed it–Brenda Stephens’ son. According to the News & Observer, board policy allows immediate family members to work together in the district as long as one is not directly reporting to the other, and Seth Stephens reports to the superintendent, who reported to Brenda Stephens while she was board chair.

And last but not least, racism:

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.”

I’ve always been amazed at the way school board members so self-righteously say that politics should be kept out of education. Don’t get me wrong–I agree. It just seems like they’re doing a very poor job of it.

Sam Hieb / Contributing Editor

Sam Hieb is freelance journalist from Greensboro, North Carolina. He is a contributing editor for Carolina Journal and for Piedmont Publius, a blog that focuses on political a...

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