This story originally published online at The Assembly.

Monique Felder peered through the tall windows, studying the dozens of demonstrators outside A.L. Stanback Middle School in Hillsborough. Even muffled by the glass, she could hear their agitation. 

She considered whether they might rush the building, where the Orange County Board of Education was discussing the rise of white nationalism. She hoped the police could contain them if they did. She wondered if she, the school district’s superintendent, was safe.

It was October 2021: a tense time for a district in the maw of the culture war. The previous month, a group that included the Proud Boys, an organization linked to the Capitol insurrection, had assembled with flags and a bullhorn near the entrance to an Orange High School football game. They called for an end to COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students (though none existed) and masking rules, and for the deaths of those who disagreed.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s office, meanwhile, had singled out Hillsborough’s Cedar Ridge High School library for carrying Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer. The book, written in graphic-novel format, chronicles the author’s coming out as nonbinary and contains panels depicting adult sex. “There’s no reason anybody, anywhere in America, should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth,” Robinson, a Republican, had said.

Now, protesters had descended on the board meeting. Several signed up to comment on the math curriculum, but instead used the microphone to claim the board was promoting anti-white “racism” or seeking to destroy America. Gretchen Schmid, chair of the local Moms for Liberty chapter, signed up to discuss masking policy, then accused the board of working alongside its “antifa allies” to silence students and parents who opposed mask mandates. “This, folks, is a manifestation of critical race theory,” she said before officers led her away for veering off-topic. 

An aerial view of downtown Hillsborough. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

Felder wasn’t worried about the speeches, the audience outbursts, or even the members of the Proud Boys sitting inside wearing gaiters to cover their faces. “There was plenty of law enforcement within that auditorium,” she said. “You’d at least have time to duck and run.”

But the gathering outside, billed as a “Rally Against Filth,” felt different. “It’s as if hell was unleashed,” Felder said. “They were loud. Belligerent.” 

Several carried enlargements of the most explicit Gender Queer illustrations. They demanded the schools “quit trying to sexualize” children. They called for Felder’s resignation. And they whooped as a local Proud Boy emerged from the building and made a speech tying the board’s leader to the “Marxist” Black Lives Matter movement.

As Felder took in the scene from inside, someone in the crowd spotted her and pointed. “I’m not a person who frightens easily,” the superintendent said. “But I was afraid. And I was afraid for my life.”

Felder works in her office at the Board of Education building in Hillsborough on July 13. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

The educational battles that have swept across America have taken deep root in Hillsborough, a county seat better known for its colonial-era architecture and literary vibe. Three separate factions—a Venn diagram of overlapping interests and conflicts—have been sparring over what the public schools should deliver, and how a board of education should govern.

They have faced off at the podium, on social media, within the bureaucracy, at the polls, and at the barricades. They have met in public spectacles and behind closed doors. They have spoken in both blunt and coded words.

At stake is the success of 7,000 students attending seven elementary and six secondary schools.

The Orange County Board of Education building in Hillsborough. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

Some of the battle in Orange County follows a national script, with an emboldened conservative movement organizing around themes like critical race theory. “The issues the public brings to school boards are increasingly refracted through the lens of national political discourse,” reported Education Week, a nonprofit news organization. The controversies “are now as much about political identity as they are about keeping students safe and engaged.”

It’s not just school board members feeling the heat nationally. Superintendents, too, have become increasingly targeted. In North Carolina, the Republican-sponsored Senate Bill 90 would give parents a tool to force out superintendents who repeatedly violate the “fundamental right to parent.”

The tension in Orange County doesn’t stop with the classic culture war. Board members and their supporters have also split into camps that call themselves “progressive” and “moderate.” Their central dispute is over how aggressively the board should prioritize the dismantling of systemic discrimination. But that doesn’t begin to describe the hostility between those two sides.

Above: Hillary MacKenzie and La Tarndra Strong at a July 22 rally in support of Felder. Below: Signs from the rally. (Photos by Anthony Crider.)

Orange County may seem like an unlikely setting for such a skirmish. But look at an electoral map of the school district, and the polarization makes more sense. 

Hillsborough, with its riverwalk and rainbow flags, has grown as a progressive hub since the 2000s, when rising home prices in Chapel Hill established it as a relatively affordable alternative. But it is a blue hole at the center of an expansive red donut, including rural precincts that voted for President Trump by margins of three- and four-to-one. (Chapel Hill and Carrboro, also blue, form their own adjacent school district.) What appears, on the surface, like a liberal dominion is actually a place of stark contrasts.

Orange County Schools have undergone their own demographic change. A student body that was 65 percent white in 2012 is now less than 50 percent white. Students speak 40 languages at home. More than 1 in 4 is Hispanic. The number receiving free and reduced-price meals has climbed to almost half. LGBTQ+ kids are more visible. 

To understand what this new diversity has meant politically, it’s worth detouring back a few years, to a moment when America’s capacity for coexistence hit rock bottom.

During the months surrounding President Trump’s 2016 election, Orange County Schools mirrored the divided nation. Anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and white supremacist graffiti appeared in school restrooms. A student told a Black teacher that “Black lives don’t matter.” Others chanted “build a wall,” and taunted classmates with claims that Trump would deport Black and Latino students. 

Amidst this, a parent named La Tarndra Strong was dropping off her daughter at Orange High School when she passed a white pickup truck waving a large Confederate flag. 

Strong’s heart sped up as she flashed back to her Florida childhood. Hers was the first Black family in their suburban neighborhood, she said, and drivers with similar flags yelled the N-word through their windows as she walked to the park. “I would be afraid that truck was going to come around and hurt me,” she said. 

La Tarndra Strong, a parent and founder of the Orange County Hate-Free Schools Coalition. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)
Orange High School in Hillsborough. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

Strong was a Republican in 2016 but not particularly political. She believed that if she alerted school authorities to this “blind spot,” they’d surely order Confederate flags—along with T-shirts, belts, and hats, which she said students wore—off campus.

She didn’t get the response she expected. “When you start banning symbols, you start attacking freedom of speech,” then-Board of Education Chair Stephen Halkiotis, a former Orange High School principal, said at the time. “You ban one flag, you’re going to have to ban every flag.”

Strong wrote to other parents. “I can’t do it alone,” she told them in an email. “I need your help.” They began turning out for school board meetings in December 2016, under the umbrella of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, calling for an immediate ban on Confederate emblems.

Their numbers grew in the new year. Among them was Hillary MacKenzie, a white stay-at-home parent. She had been jolted into action after hearing the language that fueled Trump’s election, a racism more overt than the hushed bigotry she had heard as a child in Orange County. “It made me realize, as a young mother, it was not the time to sit on the sidelines,” she said. MacKenzie met Strong and her daughter at a political gathering, listened to their story, and decided to join the effort. “Students should be able to go to school without hate symbols around them,” she said.

Halkiotis wanted to proceed slowly, with advice from legal experts about how to balance racial-climate and free-speech concerns. “Unilateral decisions can be made quickly,” he said. “A good, solid decision involving many people takes time.” Critics called him cowardly and tone deaf for demanding patience in the face of white supremacy.

Stephen Halkiotis, former chair of the Orange County school board, at his home outside Hillsborough. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

“It was my time on the cross,” he said. “I’m serious.”

In August 2017, the board came around. It voted to ban Confederate flags, swastikas, and Klan symbols. “I respect a flag that is held up as part of one’s heritage,” Halkiotis told a reporter, explaining his change of heart. “But not when it’s been co-opted by a militant racist group.”

Strong and her allies celebrated. They also noted that the board waited until two days after a neo-Nazi struck and killed Heather Heyer during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “One of the things that became apparent,” MacKenzie said, “was that we needed a new school board, because it took them nine months to do this.”

MacKenzie ran in 2018 on a racial justice platform. She placed third in a field of eight, enough to secure a seat on the board.

The Confederate flag victory offered a tailwind to those eager to confront the obstacles faced by students of color. In 2019 the board acknowledged the “persistent racial intolerance, inequities, and academic disparities in our district.” That was the preamble to a new equity policy crafted by a task force that included Strong. 

The policy called for recruiting a diverse workforce, improving training, and ferreting out barriers that keep certain students from learning. Halkiotis originally opposed it, saying the preamble’s mea culpa “puts us on shaky legal ground.” But the final vote was unanimous.

“I’m not a person who frightens easily. But I was afraid. And I was afraid for my life.”

Monique Felder

The board also hired Felder as superintendent in 2019. She had been working in Nashville, and was impressed by how Orange’s equity policy acknowledged the district’s own shortcomings. “To me, here’s a board and a community saying, ‘We’re not trying to sweep anything under the rug,’” she said. “This was a district that had what I call teeth and muscle by way of a policy.”

Felder catapulted into the work, and her impact has been significant. The percentage of Black high school students in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes increased from 18 to 30 percent over a year. The faculty looks more like the student body. Families who speak limited English at home, or don’t use email, have better access to school communications.

Wide demographic gaps persist, and on standardized test scores, only 48 percent of students achieved grade-level proficiency in 2021-22 (statewide, it’s 51 percent). But Orange ranked No. 1 among North Carolina’s 115 districts in terms of how many schools exceeded the state’s academic growth targets. And data released in June showed sizable gains in early-elementary literacy skills, with Black students outpacing the average. 

Hillary MacKenzie, a parent and former chair of the Orange County school board. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

MacKenzie and her allies remained a minority on the board until 2020, when a progressive electoral wave created a 5-2 majority with her as the new chair. The other two members were moderates.

From the moment she took the gavel, MacKenzie understood the clock was ticking. “I didn’t know how long I would be chair,” she said. “So I was going to make decisions to get as much done as we possibly could in a short period of time.”

Much of the board’s energy went into COVID-19 policy, which leaned toward caution in health matters. But board members also pushed on equity. They renamed two schools, one that had been named for a slaveholder and the other for a segregation-era school official. This cost the progressives some political capital; even supporters wondered about the timing. 

“When Hillary first shared that she was going to move forward with renaming, I said, ‘Not now,’” said Strong. “Yes, we should do it. But not now, because the pandemic was still underway.” 

The board also passed detailed guidelines to protect students and employees who are transgender or transitioning. This reflected a recognition that LGBTQ+ students in Orange County, as elsewhere, face considerable hostility. Teachers told The Assembly about students who tear down Gay-Straight Alliance posters, or belittle their trans classmates with barbs like “I’m feeling like a sheep today.” One high school English teacher described a student who was trying to write about what made him proud of his trans identity and coming up dry. All he could focus on were the hardships.

The most contentious of the guidelines notes that some trans students feel endangered or unwelcome at home if they come out. “The school principal or their designee should speak with the student first,” the policy says, to decide “how to involve the student’s parents, if at all.”

Mental-health professionals said the discretionary language would protect students’ safety. MacKenzie, who helped write the guidelines, said that was her intention. “I am in the business of keeping children alive,” she said.

Some voters, though, considered the language an encroachment on parents’ rights. One of them was a Colorado transplant who soon became the face of the conservative opposition.

It was affordable land that brought Gretchen Schmid to Orange County. Back in Colorado, her four children had attended private Waldorf schools, which emphasize arts and the outdoors and limit technology. But after they relocated in 2020, one of her sons wanted a traditional high-school experience with competitive sports. Schmid and her husband enrolled him in the ninth grade at Orange High School.

At the Waldorf schools, Schmid said, she met monthly with her children’s teachers. They explained what the students were reading and how those stories supported them at their developmental stage.

Schmid still wanted to know what her son would be studying. As she looked online for the curriculum, she stumbled on conservative websites from other states, where parents had scoured their children’s reading lists. “They identified the themes that kept coming up,” Schmid recalled. “And they were cannibalism, church is bad, family is bad, scary white people.”

Gretchen Schmid, a parent and the local Moms for Liberty chapter chair. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

Schmid’s alarm mounted the following year, when she learned her son’s English class was reading Like Water for Chocolate aloud. Laura Esquivel’s novel follows a Mexican woman whose cooking transmits powerful emotions, including sadness and lust. The tale has magical realism, political metaphor, evocative food writing, and extramarital sex.

“A totally inappropriate book,” Schmid said. “We teach our family about the importance of family, and that we follow God’s plan for the family—and that is a very sacred emphasis on the power of procreation.” This means celibacy until marriage, and Schmid felt the book was at odds with that teaching. “We don’t need extra kindling to put on what’s already really strong for a teenager,” she said.

Schmid considered this “grooming,” and one example of public school overreach. She also disapproved of mandatory COVID-19 testing and on-field masking for unvaccinated student-athletes. (Waldorf schools tend to draw vaccine-averse families like hers.) And she considered the transgender guidelines anti-family because they give schools leeway about notifying parents. 

Schmid had already started organizing a chapter of Moms For Liberty, a self-described “parental rights” group that originated in Florida. The organization, known for its confrontational tactics, grew rapidly during the pandemic. 

Stickers on the Gretchen Schmid’s laptop. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

She set out to spread the word. Facebook reached a limited audience, so Schmid began approaching parents as they waited to pick up their children after school. One afternoon, she put on a purple T-shirt from a charity race, then walked the car line at an elementary school that serves many immigrant families. She handed out a QR code for a conservative website, promising parents they’d learn about library and classroom materials, test scores, and teacher attrition.

MacKenzie was there picking up her child. She spotted Schmid—“looking like a nice white lady, looking like a teacher,” she said. “And something about it just made me so angry.” 

The board member jumped out of the car, leaving her husband to wait for the child. She followed close behind the Moms for Liberty chair. “It’s propaganda,” she shouted to the drivers. “Call the school board if you have questions.”

MacKenzie threatened to call the police if Schmid held up the line. “How does it feel to spread lies, Gretchen?” she asked. “Why are you so against gay kids?”

“Why do you want to sexualize children?” Schmid shot back.

“Why are you a fascist, Gretchen?” the board member later asked, in a part of the exchange that Schmid recorded and conservative activists shared online

In retrospect, MacKenzie said, she probably should have walked away. But she said she stands by her choice of words. “She is alt-right conservative and spreading misinformation,” MacKenzie said. “To me, that falls pretty closely in the line of fascism.”

Schmid’s Moms For Liberty chapter joined a matrix of groups organizing around district policies, including the Orange County Republican Party, which urged the board’s opponents to “sign up for public comments to push back on their equity agenda.”

They already had. At a September 2021 meeting, parents called board members dictators and compared mask mandates to the Trail of Tears. They chastised the board for displaying a “terrorist”—meaning Black Lives Matter—flag. One paraphrased the Book of Matthew, telling members to “tie millstones around your neck and throw yourself into the sea before you mess with these kids.” 

Conservatives were also active online, describing the transgender guidelines as “parental subversion” and suggesting that next teachers will help students get secret piercings and change their religions. The Apex-based Education First Alliance, which sponsored the “Rally Against Filth,” claimed in a video that antifa was “informing the school board” and that MacKenzie supported “indoctrinating kids in gender fluidity.”

“I didn’t know how long I would be chair. So I was going to make decisions to get as much done as we possibly could in a short period of time.”

Hillary MacKenzie

When Orange County’s schools announced an “affinity space” where Black employees could meet and support one another, following some traumatic national headlines, the Virginia-based Parents Defending Education filed a civil-rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. The 2021 complaint, which the department did not take up, alleged the district was promoting “explicit racial segregation.”

Both MacKenzie and vice chair Brenda Stephens said they received threats to their safety—and in MacKenzie’s case, death threats. This fits what the U.S. Department of Justice described in 2021 as “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against school board members and school personnel nationally. 

MacKenzie bought a home security system. Stephens, a Black retired librarian who served 20 years on the board, obtained weapons training and a concealed-carry permit.

“I remember someone saying, ‘I know where you live,’” said Stephens. “I said publicly, you step foot on my property, and you might meet your maker. Because I’m not going to be harassed or intimidated. This is not the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. They’ve been doing it to Black people for years.”

Three days before the “Rally Against Filth,” in October 2021, a parent named Jacquie Barker filed a complaint seeking the removal of Gender Queer and two other books from the Cedar Ridge High School library.

Barker, who had a child at Cedar Ridge, said she had watched a video of a school board meeting from another district, where Gender Queer was discussed. It was the most challenged book in a year that such challenges increased fourfold, according to the American Library Association. The book contains several references to masturbation and five pages depicting frontal nudity or sex. On the most explicit page, the author and a partner, both young adults, awkwardly try to use a dildo for oral sex before abandoning the effort.

The library at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)
Books on the shelves of the Cedar Ridge High School library. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

Barker said she wanted to see if the parents’ concerns were legitimate, so she borrowed the book from the public library. The LGBTQ+ characters didn’t bother her, she said, but the graphic content did. “These types of stories are over sexualizing our youth and indoctrinating them with grotesque sexual encounters,” she wrote in her complaint. She also found the author’s support for pediatric gender-affirming care, including medications to delay puberty, offensive.

Barker found sympathy within Cedar Ridge. In a conversation she recorded, then-principal Carlos Ramirez told Barker that he had not read all of Gender Queer, but the pages he viewed online surprised him. “Our mouths kind of fell open,” he told her. “How is it that a national library association—where librarians across the country, really across the globe, buy books from their recommendation list—how did they not put a warning asterisk or something?”

Ramirez said the comment reflected his opinion rather than school policy. Two review committees, one of which included Ramirez, later read the full book and recommended keeping it. So did Felder, the superintendent.

The school board made the final call during a Zoom meeting in January 2022. Members described Gender Queer as more complex than opponents depicted: The sexual sequences were a small slice of the author’s journey from confusion to self-respect. “I was also deeply touched by the loving and supportive family and community that helped Maia Kobabe,” said Carrie Doyle, MacKenzie’s successor as chair and another progressive. “My hope is for [our] community to be equally supportive of our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and families.”

MacKenzie noted the high suicidality rate among transgender and non-binary youth. Her motion to retain the book, indefinitely and districtwide, passed 7-0.

A mural on the second floor of Cedar Ridge High School. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

The board then voted to keep the two other books, which were contested for their descriptions of sex and abuse: Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy, about a young landscaper trying to break out of poverty, and Ashley Hope Pérez’s Out of Darkness, about an interracial romance during the lead-up to a fatal school explosion in 1930s Texas. 

Each vote was unanimous: a display of common ground by a politically divided board. “My mother was an Auschwitz survivor,” member Bonnie Hauser, a moderate, told The Assembly. “So book banning has real meaning.”

By then, the 2022 elections were approaching, and the next skirmish was brewing—over issues more mundane but no less contentious.  

Orange County still had to deal with run-of-the-mill school concerns, including a nationwide teacher shortage. The district pays smaller salary supplements than nearby Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Durham, and Wake, which have more students. It relies on the county government for the local share of its budget, as it can’t independently levy taxes to pay teachers more.

This has consequences in the classroom. Seventh graders at Gravelly Hill Middle School in Efland went a year without their own math teacher. Instead, they logged into North Carolina Virtual Public School and communicated with remote teachers by email, text, and instant messaging while other educators provided in-classroom support. At least twice, a substitute-teacher shortage meant that multiple classes had to gather in the auditorium. The state’s Department of Public Instruction gave Gravelly Hill a failing grade last year based on student test scores and academic growth.

Parents across the district felt frustrated by issues at their own kids’ schools. Some blamed the Board of Education for misplaced priorities. “We have all of these issues in the school district,” said Polly Dornette, whose son attends Gravelly Hill. “And the primary focus was renaming two schools”—spending $97,000 for new signs and equipment—“instead of addressing teacher shortages, learning loss, all of these things that are much more pressing.”

Gravelly Hill Middle School in Efland. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)
A book return box outside Gravelly Hill Middle School. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

Dornette held Felder responsible as well. “I certainly don’t think there is malice on her part,” she said. “But at the end of the day, she steers the ship.” At board meetings, the superintendent gave presentations that Dornette considered overly upbeat. “I think she swept the challenges under the rug,” the parent said.

In mid-2021, two former board members, Stephen and Susan Halkiotis, invited disaffected residents to their home outside Hillsborough. Both had long played leadership roles in the school system: Stephen spent 17 years as a principal before joining the board and presiding over the Confederate flag debate, and Susan served on the board for two non-consecutive stints. They both considered their successors’ direction wrongheaded.

“There was so much effort and focus on what I call the signaling of the righteous,” Susan said. “If you look at agendas, there’s equity and name changing and more equity and division. There’s not much education and achievement. … [It’s] all about equity and promoting Black kids over any other ethnicity.” (She hastily added, “We have to look after Black kids. No question.”)

As Orange High’s principal, Stephen had a reputation for quietly helping individual students—for example, working with gay leaders to find housing for gay kids whose parents had kicked them out. But now the district was shifting its attention to more systemic injustices. He had attended equity training as a board member and questioned its value. “Nobody had to tell me how to be fair to people,” he said. 

While on the board, Stephen had voted for the equity policy. But he believed that, over time, the word equity had become “weaponized,” with white people cast as oppressors. 

He cited the district’s plans to teach the 1619 Project, which explores the legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans in history. “Go anywhere in the world and you can do a 320 B.C. Project,” he said. “Greeks enslaved other people. Romans enslaved other people… The beauty of America is that it offered folks—oppressed people from all over the world—to come to a new world to find a better way of life. That’s why my parents came to this country. They didn’t come here to raise children to become oppressors.”

From the meeting at the Halkiotises’ house arose a new political action committee, Friends of Orange County Schools, which formally organized in February 2022. It criticized the board for fixating on what Susan called “a socio-cultural political agenda” at the cost of student achievement.

“Go anywhere in the world and you can do a 320 B.C. Project. Greeks enslaved other people. Romans enslaved other people.”

Stephen Halkiotis

Friends of Orange County Schools branded itself big-tent and moderate: “Not the vocal left or the vocal far right,” Stephen said. It attracted a broad membership, though the group won’t reveal numbers. “I’d look across the room and be like, ‘Whoa, my political ideologies are nowhere near what this person’s are,’” said Dornette, the Gravelly Hill parent.

Stephen did feel sympathetic toward some stances Moms for Liberty had taken, including their distaste for explicit library books. “I used to look at Sears, Roebuck catalogs,” he said. (That’s where teenage boys in the mid-20th century could glimpse women in lingerie.) “And I know growing up today, it’s hard for kids. But do we really need to have what appears to me to be pornographic cartoons in a little booklet showing kids sexual acts being performed with males and females and with strap-on fake genitalia?”

Friends of Orange County schools endorsed four school-board candidates that spring. Three of them overlapped with the slate Moms for Liberty had endorsed.

Both moderates and conservatives often framed the issue this way: The schools are paying more attention to social justice goals than to academics.

Equity advocates call this a false dichotomy—you can’t promote learning without tackling bias and making students feel safe. “I don’t know why anyone thinks that protecting a child’s sense of humanity is not part of education, and part of their ability to walk into our schools and learn,” MacKenzie said. 

What’s more, she added, she and other board members spent a tremendous amount of time during the pandemic discussing academic challenges. “We were having so many extra meetings,” she said, “to make sure children didn’t fall behind academically in the middle of the biggest disruption … to the public education system in recent times.”

But she added that school boards are policy- and budget-making bodies. They don’t manage academics or dictate curriculum. “I’m not an expert in that,” she said. “No one should want me in charge of that. That isn’t the board’s role.” The board hires the superintendent, she noted, and Felder brought three decades of experience improving learning outcomes.

MacKenzie decided not to run for reelection in 2022, citing health reasons. Stephens also declined to run again, saying the ongoing conflict made her “sick and tired.” That gave the election a wide-open feel. Candidates that Friends of Orange County Schools endorsed won three of the four contested seats, giving the moderates a 4-3 majority. 

The Orange County Board of Education building in Hillsborough. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

The new board has turned away from passing large equity-minded policy initiatives. Instead, it has taken a more granular approach to overseeing the district’s daily operations. Neither Anne Purcell, the current chair, nor Will Atherton, her immediate predecessor, agreed to timely interviews for this story. The current vice chair, André Richmond, didn’t either.

The one moderate who did speak to The Assembly, Bonnie Hauser, described the current majority as proactive and results-driven. “I’m hands-on,” she said. “With a small district like this, everybody’s very hands-on.” 

This is a controversial approach to governance. An independent audit, prepared in 2021 and updated in 2022, said Orange County’s board has traditionally been too hands-on, exceeding its statutory role, and that was “causing definite operational obstacles and morale problems.” Felder believes these blurred lines help explain the turnover rate for her job: The district had six superintendents, including interims, in the decade before her arrival.

“I’ve come to know that no veteran superintendent would ever apply for the superintendency here because of the dynamics of this district,” she said. “When you’re getting results for children, and there’s still this space of conflict, I don’t understand that.”

The “hands-on” debate blew up last fall, three months after the new members took their oath. A split board voted twice to delay approval of a school improvement plan for Gravelly Hill, which the state requires for low-performing schools. The school-level team that wrote the plan had no authority over personnel, as the board’s attorney pointed out several times. Still, moderate members said they wouldn’t approve it until they received hour-by-hour staffing details. “I want to see names,” Hauser said.

Progressive board members objected. “I … don’t think it’s the school board’s job to oversee exactly what’s happening in which classroom at what period,” said Carrie Doyle, the former chair. “I think we’re really overstepping.”

But the three members pressing hardest for details—Hauser, Atherton, and Purcell—said they wanted to ensure Gravelly Hill had the tools to succeed. “It was a great school improvement plan,” Hauser said. “I hoped by delaying the approval, the district would place more urgency on putting full-time teachers at the school.” Dornette believes pressure from the delay got educators into her son’s school faster.

There was something else going on, though, and the visual was hard to miss. Three white board members were confronting Felder and Gravelly Hill’s principal, Gwen Roulhac—both Black women with doctorates—and withholding their imprimatur over details the plan could not legally address. (The fourth moderate, Richmond, who is Black, did not participate in the discussions.) Felder had made equity her signature initiative, and the board’s new majority was promoted by a political organization that said equity efforts had gone too far.

“We don’t need extra kindling to put on what’s already really strong for a teenager.”

Gretchen Schmid

“They could have announced that they have five Ph.D. math teachers [for Gravelly Hill], and the board would have said, ‘We don’t know that they’re vetted,’” said La Tarndra Strong, who remains on the equity task force. “They had Dr. Felder’s head on a guillotine and this was the horse that they were riding in on.”

Shortly afterward, Roulhac left Gravelly Hill. “Why did she leave in the middle of the school year?” Felder asked. “Principals don’t do that, unless they’re at a breaking point.”

On Saturday morning, July 22, Strong set a table with bottled water and snacks in front of the old courthouse in downtown Hillsborough and waited for others to arrive for a hastily organized “Save our Superintendent” rally. 

Felder’s supporters had been growing anxious about her job security. For months, they asked the board why it hadn’t extended Felder’s contract, which ran through 2025. North Carolina school boards often extend such contracts after annual evaluations; Durham’s superintendent received an extension to 2026 and Alamance-Burlington’s to 2027.

“This inaction is a quiet way to push a superintendent out of the district,” MacKenzie had told board members at a February meeting. 

Then, throughout July, the board had spent hours in closed session, including long stretches from which Felder was excluded.

One closed session on July 10 followed an independent financial review that revealed Orange County schools were spending down their rainy-day fund “at a level that is not sustainable.” The board had commissioned the review after learning about a $985,000 budget shortfall, triggered by the unpredictable demands of a COVID-era labor crisis—for example, incentives to keep bus drivers from quitting. “The hard part is the surprise,” Hauser said of the shortfall. “We didn’t know it was coming.”

Felder defended the spending decisions, saying they were essential to running a functional system during a pandemic. “This was not a district calling parents to cancel bus routes,” she said. The district did cut expenses, she said, but only to a degree: “Staying on budget but not meeting the needs of our students, is not—and I repeat, is not—an acceptable strategy.” 

Now, as about 15 others arrived at the old courthouse for the rally, they formed a circle and listened as speakers touted Felder’s successes, including Orange’s No. 1 ranking for the number of schools that exceeded North Carolina’s academic growth targets.

“How do you, in the same year that we have the largest growth in the state, also have a leader that’s inadequate?” Strong told the ralliers. “It doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t.” Given the recent pushback against racial equity, she added, “It’s no surprise that … they would come against Black leadership in our district.”

On July 28, the board convened online for yet another closed session. When they emerged an hour later, none of the members mentioned what had transpired in private. Instead, chair Purcell searched her Zoom screen. “Dr. Felder, are you with us?” she asked. 

“I am indeed,” Felder replied.

“We will give you the floor,” Purcell said. 

Felder wore an orange blazer and a strand of pearls. She looked directly at the camera. “It is with a very heavy heart of appreciation and admiration,” she said, “that I share that I will no longer serve as your superintendent.” 

The personnel agreement, which included a $195,000 severance payment, described her August 2 departure as “voluntary.” But Felder had wanted to keep the job. “Churn in school districts is not good,” she had told The Assembly a few weeks earlier. 

Before she concluded her departing remarks, Felder reviewed the district’s accomplishments under her watch, from navigating the pandemic to elevating more students of color into advanced classes. 

“Orange County Schools has become a beacon,” she said. “It has become a district that is lighting the way by breaking barriers to equity for students. It is my fervent hope that this light will continue to shine. Our students and their futures are depending on it.”

Additional reporting by Vibhav Nandagiri

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