Editor’s note: An attorney for the Orange County Board of Education objected to the INDY’s use of the term “ousted” regarding superintendent Felder’s contract, so we have modified the headline and an additional paragraph in the story in which the word was initially used, for greater accuracy. You can read the attorney’s letter to the INDY here.
For months, parents and teachers in Orange County have worried that a new school board, composed of more moderate members who were elected last May, would reverse the progress a progressive board has made in the past few years.
In January, those fears seemingly became reality when the new board failed to renew the contract of longtime superintendent Dr. Monique Felder, who focused on promoting student equity.
Felder was first hired as superintendent in November 2019. In 2020—the first year of the COVID pandemic—the school board officially offered Felder a one-year extension to her three-year contract, voting unanimously to keep her on as superintendent through 2024.
On top of that, Felder received a $10,000 bonus for “outstanding performance.” At the time, all board members agreed Felder had done an outstanding job of leading schools through the pandemic, which had created an unprecedented crisis for students and teachers.
Since then, Felder’s employment contract was extended once, with the school district agreeing to keep her on through June 2025. Earlier this year, however, when her contract again came up for extension, the new school board denied it, “effectively showing her the door,” said Hillary MacKenzie, former school board chair, during a meeting last month.
“All seven of you know that this inaction is a quiet way to push a superintendent out of a district,” MacKenzie told the board members. She noted the significant progress Felder has helped students make since the 2020-21 school year.
In fact, in 2022, students in 10 of the district’s 12 schools exceeded the state’s expectations for academic growth (that is, how much students learn over time), according to the NC Department of Public Instruction. That’s a higher percentage than in any other district in the state. (It’s worth noting that when it comes to student test results, the district is in worse shape than it was before the COVID pandemic, like many school districts across the nation.)
“While [Orange County Schools] still has a long way to go, our students are growing. Our data are moving in the right direction for the first time in more than a decade,” MacKenzie said. “I am grateful that [Felder] has moved the needle for our students.”
In a written statement to the INDY, Felder didn’t directly address the board’s decision to deny her another contract extension. But she mentioned how, in spite of the district’s progress, “some will always exploit times of uncertainty to advance their own limited or destructive agendas.”
“This is not new, nor is it exclusive to our district. From a leadership perspective, however, it is entirely unacceptable,” Felder wrote. “More than anything, our students, staff, families, and community are craving stable leadership as schools and school systems everywhere continue to regain their footing after COVID …. For over 32 years, I have worked tirelessly and exclusively for the service of all children, and right now we have a priceless opportunity before us to keep things moving in the right direction.”
Before Felder was hired, the Orange County school district saw seven superintendents (or interim superintendents) serve in 10 years. That’s a faster rate of turnover than the North Carolina standard, which is typically about three years, according to a 2014 report from the Brookings Institution.
By 2025—the year Felder’s contract expires—the superintendent will have served a little over five years. But that doesn’t mean the district can’t benefit from her continued leadership.
When Felder joined the Orange County school district, she immediately turned her focus to addressing the district’s racial disparities, particularly in student performance and discipline. Her efforts had an immediate impact.
In the four years since Felder became superintendent, graduation rates for Black students have improved, going from 87.2 percent in 2018-19 to 88.7 percent in 2021-22, according to the NC DPI.
In addition, racial disparities in school discipline have lessened dramatically. In 2018-19, Black students composed 46 percent of short-term suspensions despite being only 15 percent of the student population. Last school year, Black students were suspended much less, making up about 29.2 percent of suspensions even as the student population increased to 20 percent.
Part of that may be due to the district’s new “code of conduct, character, and support.” Released in 2021, it encourages teachers to handle student misbehavior with prevention and intervention techniques before defaulting to suspensions.
Felder also led the district in creating a comprehensive plan to address equity issues, conducting regular surveys of students and staff with questions such as “how diverse, integrated, and fair [is] school for students from different races, ethnicities, and cultures?”
Earlier this year, 65 percent of respondents answered that question favorably, a big jump over the 43 percent who answered favorably last winter, according to Sarah Patterson, a social worker at New Hope Elementary School.
“During [Felder’s] tenure, I have seen historically marginalized students be more supported in schools,” Patterson said last month during a school board meeting. “Students no longer have to worry about being deadnamed in front of their peers, because they are now protected by our gender support policy. Students get to celebrate the joy of Black History Month through our first-ever district-wide student expo [in February].”
“All of these improvements are because of Dr. Felder and the steps she has taken as superintendent to support all students in this district,” Patterson concluded.
Under Felder’s leadership, “social-emotional learning” has become a priority for staff. In the past few years, the district has made regular updates to its antidiscrimination policy—one of the strongest in the state—providing guidance to staff on how to support students who experience “oppressive words or actions” because of their race, sexuality, gender identity, or disability.
The district also released a new code of “conduct, character, and support” in 2021, which encourages teachers to handle student misbehavior with prevention and intervention techniques before defaulting to suspensions.
Felder has sent out regular newsletters addressing issues of race. Following George Floyd’s death in 2020, Felder wrote an open letter outlining the district’s commitment to “acknowledging and denouncing the racism and racial injustice we see and experience in our country.”
“Our district will not tolerate our students feeling unsafe in their own skin,” Felder wrote. “Every single one of our students deserves a future untainted by the byproducts of racial injustice. As a school district, it is essential that we help secure this future for our students.”
An Orange County parent and school employee speaking before the school board last month echoed concerns that Felder leaving would have a negative impact on students and staff.
“Dr. Felder is the first superintendent in my 16 years to visit our schools and have real conversations about our experiences and our needs and then actually follow up on our concerns with possible next steps,” said Rosemary Deane, a family outreach staffer at New Hope Elementary School.
“We are all beginning to see glimpses of her vision that all students may experience academic success, but we have a long way to go. I urge the board to extend her contract so that we may continue this powerful and urgent work.”
School board chair Will Atherton and other members declined to comment on the board’s decision to deny Felder a contract extension. Atherton wrote, via email, “The board cannot discuss confidential personnel information, as it is protected by state law and our ethics policy.”
The new school board
When Orange County held elections for the school board last year, MacKenzie was one of two liberal board members who had decided not to seek reelection. MacKenzie’s decision followed a turbulent tenure marked by angry parents railing against mask mandates, Moms for Liberty members accusing board members of “grooming” children (with LGBTQIA+-inclusive books), and white supremacists gathering outside board meetings.
Two newcomers were elected to the school board: Andre Richmond, a captain with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, and Anne Purcell, a former principal. Richmond and Purcell joined school board veterans Atherton and Bonnie Hauser to create a new four-person voting bloc that occasionally overrides the three other more liberal board members—Sarah Smylie, Jennifer Moore, and Carrie Doyle. Together, the bloc voted to make Atherton the new board chair and Purcell the new vice chair.
In the nine months since the new board was elected, members have appeared mostly united in ongoing efforts to improve student performance, support teachers, and create equity for Black and minority students. But there have been a few stumbles.
In October, Atherton, Hauser, Purcell, and Richmond voted against instituting a stress management program for teachers that could have reduced burnout and turnover. Purcell cited concerns from teachers that the administrator of the program was “bullying” or “disrespectful.” Hauser said she had also heard some “bad press.”
Felder, who recommended the program, argued it was selected based on requests from staff and was vetted before being brought before the board. Nevertheless, her proposal was shot down.
Later that month, the same four board members voted down the school improvement plan for Gravelly Hill Middle School, created after the state designated the school as “low-performing.” When Felder and district staff presented a revised version of the plan in November, the voting bloc shot it down for a second time. Shortly afterward, the principal of Gravelly Hill Middle School resigned.
In Orange County, as in every other county across the state, votes by the school board on “personnel matters” (those relating to employees) are secret. So there’s no way to know which board members may have voted for or against extending Felder’s contract. MacKenzie, however, is worried the board’s recent actions will mark the start of more resignations across the district.
“When we lose superintendents and members of district leadership, we lose principals and [assistant principals],” MacKenzie said during the February meeting. “And when we lose school leadership, we lose teachers and other support staff members.”
In the meantime, Felder says she is simply resolved to do the best she can for students while she is still superintendent. In her statement, she also declined to comment on personnel matters, “out of concern for the integrity of that process, and because I have no desire to take away from the one thing needed,” she wrote.
“What children need right now is our relentless focus … on making every hour and every day fruitful for every child,” Felder said. “While this is not rocket science, it certainly requires laser-like focus on eliminating any barriers or impediments to learning. That’s it. Every single day, that is what you will find me doing with my teams and with everyone in our community who supports this work.”
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