Board members arrange bonus payback

By Catharin Shepard • Editor • According to information from Hoke County Schools, Hoke County Board of Education members have either made arrangements to not accept their stipend in order to pay back the bonus money, or have outright paid it back.

Documents showed at least four out of the five members specifically made arrangements: two of them shortly after the News-Journal sent the request for the information about the bonuses, and two others in September.

In a letter sent September 21, 2023 to District Attorney Mike Hardin, Interim Superintendent Dr. Rodney Shotwell provided emails and other documents showing that four of the board members had taken action to pay back the $4,000 bonuses from June, and in some cases, the $600 or $1,200 bonuses from January.

Emails and one photocopy of a cashier’s check showed Catherine Blue, Ruben Castellon and Keisha Gill sought to pay back both bonuses, and Rosa McAllister-McRae specifically sought to pay back the $4,000 bonus.

Catherine Blue sent an email September 12, 2023 to Interim Finance Officer Willena Richardson stating “I would like to have the two bonuses paid to me in January and July 2023 treated as a prepayment of my monthly compensation until I have repaid the entire amount. Please let me know when I will receive my next monthly payment.”

Ruben Castellon sent an email June 27, 2023 to Richardson asking that he not receive any type of payment including the monthly $200 travel stipend. “As an individual BoE member, I am requesting that I do NOT receive any type of payment to include the monthly $200.00 payout for travel/gas. The no-payout to me should be for 6 months which will be necessary to pay off the advance payment of $3,215.33 ($4,000 before all deductions). Kindly reply and let me know the appropriate action has been taken by you.”

Castellon sent another email Friday, June 30, 2023 to Richardson which said, “To further clarify I will also treat the $600.00 bonus received on 13 January 2023, as an advance payment. The total amount received as advance payment is: 1. $600.00 (13 January 2023) 2. $4,000 (2 June 2023) Total: 4,600.00

“I do NOT want to receive any monthly payments (this includes: $200.00 travel pay & $375.00 stipend, and/or any other payment for additional meetings) from HCS until the $4,600.00 balance is zeroed out. Please email me back and let me know when I start receiving pay again.”

Keisha Gill emailed Richardson September 13, 2023 to say, “I would like to set up a pay arrangement to repay the $4000 bonus that was given to us. I would like to continue receiving my travel ck of $200 and the rest gi towards my payment arrangement.”

Included in the documents was a printed receipt from Hoke County Schools issued July 5, 2023 to Rosa McAllister-McRae, showing $4,000 paid by check with a description of “repayment.” Also included was a scan of the cashier’s check from State Employees Credit Union in the amount of $4,000, issued July 3, 2023 and made out to Hoke County Schools.

It wasn’t clear from the documents if Board of Education Chair Angela Southerland had also taken action to pay back the money. An email August 29, 2023 from Richardson to Southerland said, “I have attached the schedule for your review,” and included an attachment titled “Stipend Repayment Model.” Southerland responded “Received, thank you.” The emails did not go further into detail about what plans, if any, Southerland had concerning the matter.

Other documents

Other documents included in the information were a sign-out sheet for the “EOY retention/enhancement bonus” dated June 2, 2023. “You must sign for check. Thank you! You are IMPORTANT to Hoke County Schools!” the document stated. The sign-out sheet showed Blue, Castellon, Gill, McAllister-McRae, and Southerland all signed for the checks on June 2, 2023.

The documents also included a signed statement, dated May 31, 2023, from then-Interim Superintendent Dr. Shannon Register.

“Please give a $4,000 bonus to the Board Members from account 2.6910.870. This bonus is the Retention Bonus that was given to Hoke County Staff Members as a way of saying thank you for the many hours of service. Past Superintendents have authorized stipends for Board Members when all employees were involved. I am just keeping the trend.”

The school district previously said Register, and before her, former Superintendent Dr. Debra Dowless had authorized the bonuses. Dowless resigned from her job in February 2023, and Register resigned from her position as assistant superintendent in September 2023.

Letter to DA

The letter to Hardin from the interim superintendent stated “Court Order Compliance – Emails and Documentation.”

“Dear District Attorney Hardin, This memo is to update you on our progress regarding compliance with the court order issued to the Hoke County Schools Board of Education. Specifically, I want to provide you with additional emails exchanged between board members and our finance officer concerning retention bonuses, as well as copies of other pertinent paperwork as required by the court. Please note that we continue to review thousands of e-mails flagged by the search terms, senders, and recipients that you discussed with Rod Malone. The search results netted over 100,000 e-mails and other documents.”

Shotwell went on to say that in accordance with the court order, “we have diligently collected additional relevant emails between board members and our finance officer regarding the subject of retention bonuses. The enclosed emails date from June 27, 2023 to September 12, 2023 and are attached to this memo for your review.” The interim superintendent also noted he had included some emails regarding communication with local media.

“Furthermore, we have compiled copies of additional paperwork that the court order specified. This includes, but is not limited to, internal memos and financial reports, all related to the matters addressed in the court order.”

Shotwell said in the letter, “Our commitment is to ensure complete transparency and cooperation in this matter, and we are fully committed to adhering to the court’s directives. We will continue to forward you documents as they are identified.

“If you require any further information, have additional requests, or need clarification on any aspect of our compliance, please do not hesitate to reach out. We are at your disposal to assist in any way necessary to facilitate a smooth and efficient resolution in line with the court’s order. Thank you for your continued guidance and support as we work toward fulfilling our obligations in this case.”

Emails from the newspaper to the district attorney’s office, seeking an update on the status of the matter, were not returned by News-Journal deadline this week.

Information chain

The News-Journal asked for and obtained the information from Interim Superintendent Dr. Rodney Shotwell over the weekend of October 13-15. The information was first sent to another media outlet, which posted it on a website. The media source appeared to be under the impression the News-Journal had been in possession of the information since September. However, the newspaper only received the information this weekend after asking for it.

The News-Journal inquired multiple times while pursuing the story about the bonuses whether any of the school board members planned to donate, return, or make other plans for the bonus money. The newspaper asked the district office in an email June 22, “I know sometimes board members donate the money they receive, or otherwise just don’t accept it. Do you know if any of the funds listed on this document were donated or not accepted?” In response to that and other questions about the bonuses, the district declined to respond at the time.

The newspaper also asked each board member individually in emails sent August 14.

“Good evening, I’m reaching out to you and each of the other board members individually because I want to inquire one more time whether you had any plans to return, or donate, etc. the bonus money. I’m aware one board member did decide to return the money, and that is going in a story this week. I just want to make an offer that if you have made a similar decision, or if you want to make any statement regarding the bonuses in general, I want to be fair and include that information,” the email from the News-Journal sent to the board members said.

Castellon replied to say that the email had been sent to his campaign email instead of his official board member email, and asked that future emails be directed to his board member email. At the time he did not respond to the inquiry about the bonus money.

Only one board member, McAllister-McRae, has responded directly to the News-Journal about paying back the money. She also showed an image of the cashier’s check used to pay back the $4,000 bonus. She had not indicated whether she would pay back the bonus from January.

The only information request the News-Journal filed in September asked for all documents turned over to the Hoke County District Attorney’s Office. The email response, received September 19 from Shotwell, included one attachment of a single document showing all of the information requests the school district has made, and an explanation that the newspaper already had all of the public documents turned over to the DA’s office. It did not include the information provided to the newspaper October 15.

This is an ongoing story and more information will be provided as it becomes available.

The documents referred to in this story are posted below. DA-Memo

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