Tuesday’s Board of Education (BoE) meeting opened with emotional send-offs for Superintendent Mat Bottoms and closed with a sobering statement from board member Melissa Ehlers that questioned the legitimacy of the BoE and blamed politically motivated decision-making for Bottoms’ decision to step down.
“As a testament of my esteem for you, and the work you’ve done for this county,” Ehlers said to Bottoms. “I’d like to take this opportunity to do what I can to right the situation that lead to your decision.”
“During this past year, outside influences sought to extinguish our independent nature. This led to decisions that were made outside of the collaborative environment that was once the hallmark of this fine board,” she continued.
“We are responsible only to our constituents and our conscience, not to those who would seek to impose their individual will into our decision making process for political gain.”
Her words were met with a standing ovation.
Ehlers, who is entering her sixth year on the board, said she will not seek re-election in 2020. Watch the full meeting on the school system’s YouTube channel. Ehler’s comments begin around 1:43:00.
Bottoms, who has held the Superintendent position since July, 2017, unexpectedly submitted his resignation Nov. 21. His last day will be Dec. 31.
Following his official announcement, he sent an email to his colleagues explaining that state policies and partisan politics at the local level made it impossible for him to do his job effectively.
His departure comes two years after the county Board of Commissioners changed the school board from non-partisan to partisan, and follows several months of discord over the future of the Marine Science and Technology Early College High School (MaST).
Sixteen people, including several school principals, spoke about Bottoms during public comment, praising him for his 39 years as an educator and administrator in the Carteret County school system.
“You teach us every day, and the things you teach us make us better as we go back to our schools,” Broad Creek Middle School Principal Sarah Weinhold said.
“You showed up in a society where people often don’t show up for one another,” Newport Elementary Principal Jody McClenny said. “You, Mat Bottoms, have simply been the best.”
Most of the speakers became emotional and expressed their sadness at his departure. Many pointedly asked the board to take extra care in choosing a successor who would continue his legacy. Some not-so-subtly hinted that the Board of Education itself was the reason for Bottoms’ abrupt resignation.
“The past couple years it has become very clear that politics have taken over some of the decisions that you guys have been making. Not all of you, but some of you,” parent Dana Mull said.
“Please be sure that the person you put in that position has the education of our children as first priority, not their own personal political gain. We’re all watching”
One speaker didn’t hold back at all.
Andrea Beasley, MaST parent who organized the filing of a legal injunction against the Board of Education to halt the planned closing of the school this summer, said Bottoms was leaving because he realized “the toxic environment wasn’t going anywhere.”
“Many of us of know there’s more to this retirement that meets the eye,” she continued, before announcing her candidacy for the very same board she was speaking to.
Beasley will run for the District 4 seat, currently held by Travis Day. She is the daughter of Lockwood Phillips, publisher of the Carteret County News-Times.
Public comment closed with a prepared statement from Katie Statler, whose response to Bottoms’ resignation was published in The Beacon Monday.
“No one in the room in front of me is a bad person,” she said to the board, acknowledging the work that went into their campaigns and the oaths of office they took.
“We wanted to hear your ideas that you could bring to this school system….No one asked about political affiliation,” she said, before alleging that some, unnamed, BoE members, “knowing or not,” were being controlled by outside entities.
“There’s men and women – some in public positions and some not – taking pride in their ability to make choices for board members.”
Statler then said she knew “without a shadow of doubt” that many more people would have signed up for public comment if they weren’t scared of being targeted for speaking out.
She closed with a plea and a promise to the board: “If the success of students comes first in every decision made between these four walls there will never be another question of the intent or drive behind any decision made.”
Before the meeting went into closed session, Bottoms stood up and addressed the audience rather than the board, animatedly thanking those who had taken risks on him throughout his career in Carteret County.
“There’s been nothing compared to the fact that our people and our school system have taken a risk on me in being your superintendent,” he said. “That means the world to me.”
After a closed session, the BoE reconvened and announced that Assistant Superintendent for Strategic Improvement, Richard Paylor, would take Bottoms’ role in the interim. Assistant Superintendent for Personnel, Policy and Student Services Blair Propst will share the duties of the position.