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Brunswick commissioner accused of and denies meddling in health department decisions

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Multiple Brunswick County Board of Education members are uncomfortable with the health department’s handling of a February notice to the school district involving the then-recent closure of South Brunswick High School. (Courtesy/Brunswick County)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY –– At least two Brunswick County Board of Education members believe Brunswick County Commissioner Pat Sykes intervened in a February school-related health department decision by pressuring the health and human services director to back off school closure determinations.

The matter colors how the school board views the health department, prompting mistrust and discomfort that lingers today, given the department’s alleged willingness to bend to political pressure.

Both Sykes and Brunswick County deny any impropriety and insist no change in procedure occurred.

RELATED: Charters call health director’s actions ‘inappropriate’ after requesting student records amid Covid outbreak

The matter remains relevant, important enough that the school board is willing to potentially risk its federal funding for school nurses by holding up a memorandum of agreement renewal with the health department past its Wednesday due date to squeeze in a new provision: All future recommendations must be in writing.

What happened?

On the heels of the largest statewide cluster reported at the time in Town Creek Elementary School, Brunswick County Schools was trying to adjust to a return to in-person instruction at the beginning of the year after a two-week remote-only start.

Information about Covid’s impact and transmission among young people in a school setting was scarce.

BCS was hit with a cascade of closures –– each lasting as little as 10 days to as long as 20. It shuttered Jessie Mae Monroe Elementary, Union Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, North Brunswick High, and South Brunswick High all within a three-week timeframe. Each closure was prompted by the county health department’s identification of a cluster among students at each campus, defined as a link between five or more positive cases.

The pressure from overworked parents and pending legislation to keep the schools open was palpable.

As school was preparing to let out on Friday, Feb. 19, the district announced a two-week closure of South Brunswick High School. The following Monday, commissioner Sykes placed at least two impassioned calls to two school board members, herself prompted by emails and calls from upset parents.

“She called me on the phone and was upset, very upset about quarantine activity,” school board member David Robinson remembered. Sykes told Robinson the district was making some sort of administrative error in closing the schools. “She had me convinced we had a problem,” he said.

School board member Gerald Benton had been fielding parent emails, letting them know the district was compelled to follow the health department’s recommendations. Sykes called Benton, angry about the emails and the SBHS closure. As the county commissioners’ appointee on the health board, Sykes told Benton she had a health board committee meeting within the next 45 minutes where she would see health and human services director David Stanley and would make him “do something about it,” Benton remembered.

Two hours later, Benton said he got a call from school superintendent Dr. Jerry Oates, who relayed unexpected news.

Stanley had called the superintendent and told him he was reversing the decision made just days prior on his department’s recommendation to close SBHS. The health department would also stop sharing closure decisions with the school district altogether, according to Benton’s recollection of his call with Oates, confirmed by Oates through a spokesperson.

No reason was given for the decisions, Oates said. Dismayed, the superintendent asked for the decisions in writing.

A watered-down version of the verbal notice arrived via email the next day, Feb. 23. Notably, it did not include any word on rescinding the SBHS closure. “Ultimately, decisions on school operations reside with Brunswick County Schools,” Stanley’s email to Oates –– which BCC’d the county commissioners –– concluded.

Since the notice, the health department has taken a more passive approach, school officials said.

Six months passed from the incident before a department representative appeared before the school board again and the department never recommended another school closure (Oates said he doesn’t recall there being a significant event after the SBHS closure that would have warranted similar guidance out of the health department, as Covid-19 trends were on the decline). The district did continue to receive guidance on Covid-19 outbreaks within the schools, Oates said.

Despite repeated requests to explain why –– most recently under direct questioning at a school board meeting last month –– health officials have never provided the reason that prompted the abrupt Feb. 22 communication. At the August school board meeting, when asked if he knew what happened and why Stanley suddenly withdrew recommendations from the school district, health services director Cris Harrelson said he didn’t know and turned to staff members in the audience to ask if they did (Stanley is Harrelson’s boss).

Asked specifically what prompted the February change, county spokesperson Meagan Kascsak said, “There were no changes in our procedures from Brunswick County’s end,” and redirected questions about operating procedures to the school district.

The county health department provides Covid-19 guidance to the school district, Kascsak explained, the authority ultimately responsible for making operational decisions.

“[The school district’s] decisions might factor in the health department’s guidance along with other needs such as their known staffing levels, resources, and any concerns among their staff, students, and parents,” she wrote in a statement. “Again, this process is the same one the health department has followed throughout the pandemic, and staff are not aware of any directives that changed this course of action in February or any other time.”

County chairman Randy Thompson said his understanding is the public health department only provides guidance to the school district.

“No action by me or the County Board of Commissioners has occurred to stop guidance being provided to the school system or any citizen of our great county,” Thompson wrote in an email.

Commissioner Mike Forte said if there was evidence the health department was interfered with, the school board should have already presented it.

Still tense

School board member Steven Barger, who said he can’t recall getting a call from Sykes or Oates that day, said he considers the health department’s recommendations tantamount to directives, given state officials’ repeated calls to follow established health guidelines.

“I’m willing to take the heat and the fault for decisions we make, but I’m not willing to take the heat and the fault for decisions another agency makes who’s supposed to be making recommendations to us based on their expert GFN,” he said, speaking to the importance of being able to transparently determine where a directive is coming from.

Barger trusts the health department’s expertise but supports his board’s move to get future recommendations in writing. “When I don’t trust the health department is when we get a recommendation over the phone, and then they turn around and say, ‘Oh, we had no part in that,’” Barger said.

In general, Barger and other board members take issue with Sykes’ involvement and public opposition to school-related decisions.

Robinson said especially after the February incident, Sykes has immersed herself in school board matters. “She has been a thorn in the school board since at least I have gotten on the board,” he said. “She will quickly blast us in public, but when we try to work with her, there’s no interest in doing that.”

At a June North Brunswick Republican Club Meeting, accompanied by school board member Robin Moffitt (the lone member to vote against masks in August), Sykes and Moffitt shared concerns about critical race theory and sex education. Sykes threatened to “shut down” the county’s public schools and make them charter schools, according to a witness’ account of the meeting.

The commissioner did not return a request to comment. However, a public records request shows Sykes forwarded Port City Daily’s questions and the county’s response to them to fellow commissioners, county staff, school board members, both health directors, the founder of the local charter schools, and a local conservative radio host. In the Aug. 19 email, Sykes wrote (in bold) she had “never given direct orders” to anyone, especially the health director. She acknowledged she’s disagreed with Stanley on several issues but added her role on the health board did not equate to having any authority.

The commissioner also denied being part of an organized group that has protested the school board’s recent meetings. “I am not [part of the group], however, I do agree with them,” she wrote. Recent protested issues include opposition mask-wearing and keeping board-led prayer, which the board quietly dropped in April under a legal threat.

Sykes’ email included an actionable request: she sought a private meeting with two commissioners, two school board members and the superintendent, three representatives from the charter schools, both health directors, the county attorney, county manager, “and anyone else that will help cleanup [sic] this mess.”

Meetings that involve two members of two or more elected boards are frequent, as they allow officials to quickly move through and debate issues without public knowledge or scrutiny while avoiding triggering the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Responding to Sykes, Benton said he wasn’t interested unless the meeting was public. “The school system and Charters deserve the right to publicly explain the inconsistent or punitive actions your Health department has taken against us,” the school board member wrote. “The idea of two members meeting in secret to clean this up is disgusting and most certainly in bad faith with the idea of transparency.”

(Seperately, the leadership of the local charter schools penned a letter Aug. 30, accusing Harrleson of taking “inappropriate and ​​precipitous” actions associated with the health department’s recent Covid-19 control measure orders, served to two charters by deputies. Harrelson said the severity of the outbreak and the schools’ violations of quarantine procedure warranted the strong response.)

RELATED: Charters call health director’s actions ‘inappropriate’ after requesting student records amid Covid outbreak

Benton told Sykes the school board did its job exposing the matter at the August meeting and made fruitless attempts to privately address the matter with Sykes and the county manager. “We need a reliable and consistent Health Department making recommendations based on science,” Benton wrote. “This department is either completely disorganized or are being politically pressured in their decision making.”

In a response to Benton, Sykes denied running interference in February. “The fact is there was no politics played with the Health Department, so I don’t know what you are talking about and yes, I do call David Stanley on issues that I get calls about daily,” she wrote.

After Barger responded to Sykes’ request stating his concerns with her approach with the school board, she responded stating she doesn’t think masks work –– “they are nasty and cause health problems,” she claimed, also acknowleding each person can wear one if they so choose. The school board voted 4-1 to mandate masks on Aug. 9 and Brunswick County required face-coverings in county buildings on Aug. 26.

The meeting could bring the parties together to unify the county, she wrote. It never happened.


Send tips and comments to Johanna F. Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com

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