School board votes to repay unauthorized bonuses

Move likely will not end the district attorney's criminal investigation

RAEFORD – At a recent Hoke County Schools Board of Education meeting, the board attempted to resolve a lingering compensation issue that attracted the district attorney’s attention and threatens board members with possible criminal prosecution.

At the board’s recent meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 12, a motion was quietly approved directing individual members of the board to repay “any unauthorized compensation” to Hoke County Schools by 5 p.m. on June 30, 2024, the end of the current fiscal year.

At the end of November, Hoke County District Attorney Mike Hardin asked a Superior Court judge to unseal closed-session school board discussions around a series of federally-funded COVID-related retention bonuses paid to district staff.

The board appears to have approved retention bonus payments to elected members of the school board, the same as those paid to district staff, despite the fact that school board member compensation is set by the Hoke County Board of Commissioners. Hardin argues that these payments are a form of self-dealing and could bring about criminal fraud charges.

The members of the board — outgoing Board Chair Angela Southerland, new Board Chair former Vice Chair Catherine Blue, Ruben Castellon, Keisha Gill, and Rosa McAllister McRae — all received payments, though emails released by the district suggest that only Southerland had yet to repay the controversial bonuses, which totaled several thousand dollars.

Angela Southerland’s brother, Harry Southerland, also holds elected office as a member of the Hoke County Board of Commissioners.

A lawyer for the school district argued at the November hearing that the discussions were protected by attorney-client privilege, and Hardin asked the court to grant access to the records so his team could determine if any laws were broken.

Some of the closed session minutes were disclosed, but others remained sealed while the court considered its options. Additionally, the court granted a continuance until January so school board members could hire personal legal counsel, as the lawyers for Hoke County Schools are barred from representing individual board members in any potential criminal matter.

It’s unlikely that the promise to repay the funds will end the matter, however, as returning the money will likely not satisfy investigators from Hardin’s office or the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, which could also pursue the matter.

Another hearing in Hoke Superior Court is expected in January.

As for the remainder of last Tuesday’s school board meeting, it began with the introduction of Dr. Kenneth Spells, the district’s new superintendent beginning next year.

“I want to thank the board for trusting me and this honor,” Spells said. “I am so happy to be here. I grew up in Bladen County, not far from here, and so it’s almost like a homecoming.”

He praised Hoke County, noting that it was a special place. “We want to make this a great place, a destination district for everyone,” he continued. “Our focus is always going to be on the kids and making sure the students in this district have the opportunity to be great.”

Spells has been superintendent of a school district in Hazel Crest, Illinois for the past four years.

The board also reached a settlement with an unnamed Hoke County Schools student.

“On October 30, 2023, a petition for a contested case hearing was filed in the office of administrative hearings on behalf of Hoke County Schools student C.W.,” announced board member Keisha Gill. “On December 12, 2023, the Hoke County Board of Education approved a settlement agreement in this manner.” The settlement directs $10,000 to be used toward the student’s educational services.

Catherine Blue was elected as board chair, while Rosa McAllister-McRae was named vice chair.

Bid packages for the installation of cameras and switches at Hoke County High School were presented by district staff, with Assistant Superintendent Dawn Ramseur noting that while there was a $74,000 difference between the two bids — one from Intellicon, the other from ENCORE — there were some component differences, including a special wall switch that the district desired, that only ENCORE could provide.

The board will vote on the packages at its next meeting.

Finally, the board approved several utility items related to the new high school building project.

The Hoke County Schools Board of Education will next meet on Jan. 9.