The task is a routine one in the Moore County Schools Human Resources office: Play back the voicemail on a general department line and jot down the messages.
The calls are typically mundane: inquiries about jobs, employee questions about benefits. So the message left on Tuesday, Sept. 7, around 5:30 in the afternoon was virtually unprecedented.
The 44-second, obscenity-strewn message left by a female caller protested the school district’s ongoing face covering requirements for students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The tone was vaguely menacing, even aside from seven uses of extreme profanity, and comparison of the district’s administration and school board members to Nazis.
In retribution for the mask mandates, the caller threatened to “find your houses” and promised “we’re not going to play nice.”
Two weeks after the threatening phone call, school board Chairwoman Libby Carter abruptly ended a board meeting when protester Emily Grace Rainey refused to wear a mask. Moore County Schools Police had already escorted another protester from that meeting. Rainey, though, didn’t leave before pointing her finger at Carter and yelling, “Your days in this county are numbered, Libby Carter. You’re a tyrant. You’re evil.”
Citizens unmoored by a second year of COVID, parents frazzled by upended school schedules, partisans seeking fertile ground for exploitation — 2021 was the year all three of these waves crashed upon public education. Few communities across America went unscathed by the upset as the tone took a confrontational turn. That’s in stark contrast to past years, when board meetings were largely conducted in perfunctory style and played to largely empty rooms.
This year, platoons of citizens — how widespread the unrest is remains a point of some debate — have regularly donned “We the Parents” T-shirts in script fashioned after the U.S. Constitution, and spoken at meetings and rallies declaring their desire to “take back” the schools.
Lack of engagement is no longer an issue. So what’s going on here?
Some explanations for the shift can be found locally. In 2019, the board’s redrawing of attendance zones to account for new school construction upset some parents. Others think the school board dragged its feet in 2020 in reopening schools that were shuttered by COVID.
But those things just set the stage for three school board seats to turn over last November. New members David Hensley, Philip Holmes and Robert Levy ran as a conservative slate to successfully unseat three incumbents.
“Whether it’s Loudoun County, Virginia; Wake County, North Carolina, or Moore County, parents have woken up,” said Hensley, a longtime vocal conservative who had never run for elected office before last year. “People have been exposed to what many school boards across the country have done, and they’re not putting up with it.
“I think that parents nationwide, for whatever reason — the pandemic, they had nothing better to do — they could see what their students were learning, they started paying attention. Parents woke up, and they rightfully spoke up.”
Hensley, Holmes and Levy campaigned successfully by highlighting the low performance, as designated by the state, of several schools. And they promised to impose financial discipline.
But neither issue has really driven the recent surge of public interest in a district that enrolls almost 13,000 children and employs 1,800 people. Instead, public education has been transformed into a forum where national partisan issues are hashed out on the local stage.
“We should be spending 90 percent of our time talking about student performance and 10 percent of the time talking about the other stuff,” said Ed Dennison, the board’s longest tenured member. “Well, it’s just the opposite.”
From Goodwill to Controversy
In 2017, a number of parents and community leaders had successfully lobbied for more school funding. In 2018, an array of supporters across the political spectrum formed a campaign that overwhelmingly convinced voters to support $103 million in debt to build new elementary schools in Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst — a groundswell of support the likes of which Moore County had rarely seen
In the fall of 2018, incumbent school board members Carter, Dennison and Pam Thompson handily won re-election. Also winning on the ballot: a rare tax increase, a small hike in the sales tax to help repay school construction costs.
Then, public school goodwill seemed to be at a high.
That goodwill has largely evaporated. Now, there is wide agreement from school leaders and community members that politics have taken hold of public education.
Robert Levy, who also won his first public office in 2020, has used his position on the school board to begin pushing back against what he deems to be progressive ideas that have gained wider social acceptance.
“We do have an image problem,” he said, “and much of that comes from the idea that education is somehow a vehicle for liberal indoctrination.”
In April, Levy, a former chairman of the Moore County Republican Party, proposed that the school board endorse two policy changes:
• School athletics teams and gender-segregated facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms be limited to students of the corresponding biological sex. This would affect any transgender students.
• A ban on the teaching of Critical Race Theory, a complex academic construct developed about 40 years ago by legal scholars. CRT, as it’s commonly known, ascribes to a belief that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.
The transgender policy change never made it to the full board for consideration, but Levy pressed the CRT issue, especially after a meeting at which eight speakers affiliated with the Moore County Republican Women’s Club, alarmed by new state-created social studies standards and their perceived connection to Critical Race Theory, addressed the board and lobbied against including CRT in any curriculum. Those concerns paralleled a national campaign, launched by a number of conservative groups, claiming CRT was being taught in public schools.
During a board meeting in May, about half of the 48 speakers spoke in support of Levy’s anti-CRT proposal. Few of the comments directly engaged with the specifics of Critical Race Theory. Speakers offered their own interpretations, portraying an effort to liberalize public education and undermine the nation’s democratic identity.
“There is definitely an effort underway to rewrite American history and to reshape America’s children,” said one speaker, Sarah Slusser.
Another, Mary DeMartina, said CRT “should be called ‘Collective Retribution Tactics,’ because that is what it is. It is angry individuals who have decided that they need to take down the United States even though we were becoming unified racially.”
Nearly as many speakers urged against adopting a prohibitive policy on something that they didn’t see being taught to begin with.
Ashley Perkins, who introduced herself as a teacher assistant and parent on the district’s African-American Advisory Council, was one of several such speakers.
“The fact remains that history needs to be told in its entirety. The truth. You don’t get to pick out the parts that you don’t like,” she said. “I did not elect anyone based off their political association, and I don’t want it in this.”
The board initially rejected Levy’s anti-CRT policy but in July voted to approve an “equality and nondiscrimination” policy very similar in substance. That policy did not explicitly mention Critical Race Theory, but echoed a piece of state legislation written to bar schools from promoting concepts frequently associated with CRT.
That policy was adopted 6-1. The dissenting vote came from Pam Thompson, the board’s only Black member.
“Protests against Critical Race Theory were a nationally motivated political device to try to unite people against our traditional public schools,” Carter said. “Critical Race Theory is a misunderstood academic theory that is not taught in Moore County and well beyond the understanding of our students.”
The debate over the supposed social engineering of students didn’t end with CRT. It continued through the summer when Moore County Schools’ contract with the Panorama software company came up for renewal. The district had used Panorama to conduct student and staff surveys, and store the results, for several years.
Administrators proposed two sets of surveys this year: one to gauge students’ resilience and attitudes toward personal growth. That social-emotional learning survey has traditionally been administered to all students from grade three through high school seniors, and is designed to help teachers and counselors identify underlying struggles that might hinder learning.
The other proposed survey, usually limited to grades seven, nine and 11, would assess students’ impressions of their schools. Questions in past years have dealt with their impressions of how safe their schools are, teacher-student relationships and whether students feel they’re an important part of their school community.
But board members Hensley, Holmes and Levy objected to Panorama itself based on training programs it offered to education professionals around topics like equity and diversity.
Critics of the surveys also questioned the legality of a third party storing sensitive personal information connected to each student who took the social-emotional learning survey.
The board did vote in July — along its common 4-3 split — to renew the district’s contract with Panorama, but administrators later recommended an indefinite delay in administering surveys after mixed public input.
Arguments Without Evidence
Have the public schools shifted too far left? Too far right? Neither side offers solid evidence that a favorite term of indictment — “indoctrination” — is occurring one way or another, leaving the matter yet another battleground to be fought over.
Individuals upset with the schools aren’t familiar with the daily activities of student-teacher interaction, says Alexa Roberts, who has a child at McDeeds Creek Elementary and is a member of a Facebook group called Public School Advocates.
“They are simply listening to what is happening on the national level of the Republican Party,” says Roberts, who also serves on the Whispering Pines Village Council. ”The party is using fear to galvanize people, and I think they’ve been successful in turning out the Republican base. But they are not necessarily the folks that have any clue of what actually happens in our schools.”
Indeed, several speakers who have addressed the board this past year identified themselves as parents who either send their children to private schools or home-school them.
Hensley, Holmes and Levy frame themselves as the ones fighting against a shift toward what educators call teaching “the whole child.”
“It is a coordinated effort nationwide to turn our public schools into these massive social welfare programs. Well, you know what? I — and I think the majority of the parents and citizens — want our schools to educate our children,” Hensley said. “There’s private charities, there’s other governmental agencies that are supposed to take care of the rest. … It’s gone too far, and people are finally standing up and saying, ‘Enough.’”
Hensley and Levy hold up Moore County Schools’ reading and math proficiency levels as evidence that public schools have been stretched too far beyond the fundamentals of teaching reading, writing and math. The state also tests students’ knowledge of science and U.S. history in specific grade levels.
“The question that really divides us is: ‘What shall we teach in addition to that?’ And what shall the atmosphere of the schools be in addition to our core mission? And, most importantly, if we are not accomplishing our core mission, should we then add more of a burden to our educational system?” said Levy.
Since 2014, North Carolina has graded every public school on a traditional A-through-F scale based almost entirely on how well students perform on year-end tests in reading and math. While Moore County Schools’ “grade distribution” has improved slightly in the years since, when the last set of grades were released in 2019, they were similar to what they were in 2014.
But there’s also a vocal contingent who contest the distillation of a school’s quality to a single letter grade, based on a few days of standardized student testing at the end of every year.
“You have these folks that come in and start yelling about ‘our school grades are dropping, our schools are failing.’ They’re not wrong,” said Roberts. “Our schools aren’t performing well, but that’s a function of the fact that they’ve been defunded for years.”
Cheryl Christy-Bowman, whose children both graduated from Moore County Schools, administers the Public School Advocates Facebook group. In her view, school grades are among the issues that the newest school board members have politicized.
“What Levy, Holmes and Hensley are advocating for is not what needs to be changed,” said Christy-Bowman. “What needs to be changed is our focus on test scores, which is just a tiny little piece of what’s happening in our schools, but it’s what they have chosen to make their primary point because that’s what the state legislature uses to judge us.”
A Struggle for Improvement
Companies “shopping around” for potential new locations aren’t asking about those letter grades, or school curriculum, according to Moore County’s business and economic development leaders.
Natalie Hawkins, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress, said that newcomers to Moore County usually want a range of educational options to choose from based on their family’s lifestyle. That being the case, though, she predicted that the conflict surrounding education could take a toll on educational quality long-term.
“When schools are politicized, we likely risk a decline in the quality of instruction and lower levels of learning due to the conflict and stress it generates for our educational staff. Normally, conflict and stress in the workplace eventually results in employee turnover,” she said. “We should be devoted to providing the best working environment for our educational staff and learning environment for our students.”
Companies looking to move to or expand within Moore County pay attention to the quality of traditional public schools, even in areas that offer strong public and charter options. “Looking at an area’s school system is a key factor in relocation,” said Pat Corso, who retired this year as the director of Partners in Progress. “From public schools, charter schools to private schools, we have a pretty unique bucket of opportunities for a rural community. When any one of those foundational pieces is threatened, it affects the community and the community’s reputation.”
Schools are continually trying to improve themselves. Each year, half of Moore County’s 22 schools submit detailed improvement plans that are developed by a team of school administrators, staff and parents. Even in this arena, polarization was evident.
In discussions this fall, Levy highlighted consistently lower rates of proficiency among minority and economically disadvantaged students. When the board went to approve the plans in October, Levy tried to tie approval to a single set of criteria — closing the minority achievement gap by half and raising the school’s overall achievement by 20 percent — for evaluating the effectiveness of school improvement plans.
That suggestion was voted down 4-3, and the plans were eventually approved. The board members who opposed the motion said that they’re satisfied with the individual goals set by the schools.
“He has no clue how to resolve the issue, but it sounds good and nobody can really argue,” said Dennison, who served on school boards in Michigan before moving to Moore County. “Even though he doesn’t have the facts, nobody can argue with him about what we’d like. I wish all our kids read 100 percent.
“Obviously they don’t understand how education works. I can turn a business around in a year from not making a profit to making a profit. But in a year you can’t get all the kids to graduate well-prepared for college or a career. It takes a long time.”
Hensley, who came onto the board a year ago with plans to take a different approach to “school improvement,” said he’s pressed district administrators and the rest of the board to explore alternative curricula, like Montessori and classical education, offered at private and charter schools in the area.
“One of my biggest frustrations is the complete narrow-minded tunnel vision, absolutely incapable of thinking outside the academic box, that I’ve encountered,” he said. “That’s a sweeping indictment. It certainly isn’t everyone, but it certainly is the attitude of a lot of people on that board and in the central office.”
On the Attack
Hensley hasn’t just brought an unconventional approach to the board. He also regularly goes on the local AM radio station WEEB as a guest commentator, and openly criticizes board business and fellow board members. Sometimes, Levy joins him on the radio.
It was in one of those programs, back in April, that Levy likened Moore County Schools’ practice of showing promotional videos featuring individual schools during board meetings to “Nazi propaganda.” The comment followed a comparison Hensley made to Soviet propaganda — focusing on images of happy children while glossing over deficiencies.
At the end of a special meeting a week later, fellow board members pushed back. Board Vice Chair Pam Thompson took the opportunity to decry Levy’s remarks on the radio.
“As I reflected on that comment, ‘Nazi,’ stop at Nazi, which reflected a time in our world history of hate, evil, killing, racism,” she said during the meeting. “Everything that you want to say within that and associate that with — our children, our principals, our schools, our teachers — the whole nine yards is embarrassing to me as a board member.”
Levy and Hensley then began to clamor for another turn to respond, but Carter instead adjourned the meeting over their objections.
Meanwhile, another protest was already forming outside, in opposition to mask mandates that were still required by the state in all public schools this spring. The rally at the Moore County Schools central office had already been advertised in a recent Moore County Republican Party newsletter.
With the calamitous adjournment of the meeting, Levy and Hensley left the boardroom to join it and addressed the crowd.
“The first person that we have to get rid of is Libby Carter,” Levy, who is Jewish, told protesters. “Libby Carter tried to do a hit job on me and she tried to say I called people of a particular school Nazis.
“My last name is Levy. Right now I am so upset, I could eat ham.”
The Battle Over Masks
That rally in April was part of a string of rallies outside school board meetings this year staged to protest masks. One frequent critic was Southern Pines resident Bethann Pratte, who attended several board meetings and spoke out at several. At the April rally, she stood before fellow protesters and excoriated school administrators.
“I am appalled at what the school administrators are doing,” she said then. “They are putting the finger up to all of you, and all of us.
“We know our rights, and we can come to school without a mask. And the dictator at (Pinecrest) high school, Stefanie Phillips, I hope can hear me — on that wall, it says her mission for that school is to raise global citizens. I’ll be damned. We are raising Americans. We are nationalists.”
Pratte filed two lawsuits this year against the district. One was dismissed and one, suing Carter, Dennison and board member Stacey Caldwell for deleting comments on their Facebook pages, is pending in federal court.
The Pilot attempted to reach Pratte for additional comment for this story. She did not respond.
Board members who align with protestors say the closure of schools due to COVID and the long-running attempts at virtual instruction upended families and lives.
“Parents, as they watch their children go through remote education, are learning exactly what children are learning in school. They’re discovering what’s being emphasized in school, and the parents are happy with certain things and they’re upset with other things,” said Levy.
Almost as soon as North Carolina delegated to local school boards the authority to either mandate masks indoors or declare them optional, the Moore County Board of Education faced demands to lift the face covering requirement that had been in place since in-class instruction resumed in August 2020.
The state legislature has required school boards to revisit the issue monthly. That has kept the issue at the forefront of education this fall, pitting the district’s priorities against some who have framed mask mandates as an assault on personal liberty.
In an address that he shouted at the school board in November, John Gaines said that mask mandates are unfairly burdensome to special needs students like his son.
“He can’t wear the mask. I’m ashamed that all of us in the United States of America have to wear the masks. Don’t you get what’s going on in the world?” he said. “There’s special people in Moore County, Delta Force people. They’re getting vaccinated, and they’re going to die, probably.
“You don’t know it. You don’t know what’s happening. Don’t you see our world is being taken over? You people have power right now. Free my children.”
With Grimesey’s recommendation, the mask mandate stayed in place, approved by the common 4-3 vote, with Hensley, Holmes and Levy on the short end. Last month the school board unanimously voted, on Grimesey’s recommendation, to approve a mask-optional policy effective that day, Dec. 13.
What Majority Rules
Taken in the aggregate, criticisms of the four-member majority — some derisively call them the “legacy school board” — center around perceived infringement of parents’ ability to raise their children as they see fit.
This fall, parent Courtney Gross spoke in support of unmasking children and removing the “masks of false virtue” from officials who continue to require them.
“They will take away every right that you have from God as a loving parent, and will destroy our children’s lives and futures if we continue to let them,” said Gross.
But for everyone who addresses the board wearing a T-shirt bearing the phrase “We the Parents” in calligraphic lettering, there are others who feel safer sending their children to school with mandates in place.
“The people that are complaining about the masks and all this stuff, I made a comment at a meeting that, you know, you’re not the majority,” said Dennison. “You may think you are, but you’re not. You’re the majority showing up at the meetings and complaining about it, but there are a lot more people that don’t feel the same way you do.”
Christy-Bowman, the advocate who has frequently defended school officials and teachers in almost rapid-fire fashion on Facebook, said those who preferred mask mandates stayed out of the debate in part because of the pandemic.
“We don’t feel the need to stand up and speak publicly because, whether they want to admit it or not, we are the majority,” she said. “And as the majority, we don’t feel the need to get into a public shouting match with these people. We just feel like if we’re calm and send our thoughts prior to the meeting, then that’s pretty much all we need to do.”
At a glance, the 150 or so speakers who have addressed the Moore County Board of Education this year are a small fraction of the people directly involved with the schools, let alone the entire county population. Those speakers made nearly 300 public comments this year, not all of them about surveys, CRT and masks.
“I still think that there are a lot of people who aren’t on either end of this. They just want their kids to be able to go to school and be happy and enjoy their teachers,” said Roberts. “They don’t feel that there’s a problem in their school and they know that their teachers are doing the right thing and they are happy with what’s happening with their child’s education. They don’t want to get involved in the fray.”
As one would expect, there is little agreement over who represents the majority. Levy considers the 2020 election sweeping out three incumbent board members as a statement.
“The only measure of what the majority of parents feel is going to be found at the ballot box and currently, in the last election, parents clearly voted for a change in course,” he said. “So on that basis I feel that what we are doing is what the majority of parents want.”
But others are less interested in trying to discern how the majority of parents might want them to vote on each decision they make.
“I vote with my heart and mind on every issue that comes before the Board of Education. I am not a puppet of a rogue faction of a political party and am not beholden to any individual or group for financial support,” said Carter. “I am happy to listen to any new argument that comes along while always knowing there are two sides to every question. Being loud does not make you right.”
In Pursuit of ‘The Very Best’
After this past fractious year, where does public education in Moore County go now? This is, after all, an election year in which three board seats are up for election. Six candidates have filed, none of them currently serving.
Future elections aside, both sides of the ideological aisle have been frustrated by a year that saw their priorities take a backseat.
Christy-Bowman said that she’s concerned by the implications that the loss of experienced teachers has on students, especially those with special needs.
“One side wants to use them as political ammunition: ‘Look at how these people are being left behind.’ The other side wants to use them as ‘Hey, look how we’re failing,” she said.
“In the meantime, these kids are still lost, and no one is doing anything to help them move forward except their teachers, psychologists and counselors, who are all so overwhelmed they can’t even stand to get up and go to work in the morning.”
The real majority of parents may be the group Roberts mentioned, who focus on the individual schools their children attend. That would include parents like Michelle Cuthrell, who started the “Moore Good News” website this fall as a forum to show appreciation and support for specific teachers and other school staff members.
“It’s been a grueling two years for educators who have pivoted from in-person school to virtual school to hybrid school and back to in-person school again. So often these selfless servants who are constantly pouring out their lives for our students and who have embraced some of the toughest jobs in this pandemic go unseen and unappreciated,” Cuthrell said.
“Politics aren’t just dividing our community; they are dividing our entire country. But at the end of the day, no matter what side of the political spectrum we fall into, we’re all just parents and educators and board members and community members who want the very best for the students we love.”