Hoke school board directs members to repay “any unauthorized compensation”

By Catharin Shepard • Editor • The Hoke County Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night to direct each individual board member to repay “any unauthorized compensation” by June of next year.

Rosa McAllister-McRae made the motion, “I move that the Hoke County Board of Education direct its individual members to each repay to Hoke County Schools in full any unauthorized compensation received to date, and to do so by 5 p.m. on June 30, 2024.”

Board member Ruben Castellon seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.

The motion appeared to refer to the “staff retention” bonuses paid to school board members in January and June of 2023. Each board member received either $600 or $1,200 in January, depending on how long they had been on the board, and $4,000 in June, according to records.

The matter is being probed by Hoke and Moore County District Attorney Mike Hardin, with Hardin saying at a court hearing November 27, “I am considering whether to charge the school board members of a criminal act.”

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 showed Catherine Blue, Ruben Castellon and Keisha Gill sought to pay back both bonuses by having their monthly stipends withheld, and Rosa McAllister-McRae provided a cashier’s check to pay back the $4,000 bonus. It wasn’t clear from the documents if board member Angela Southerland had also taken action to pay back the money. An email August 29, 2023 from Interim Finance Officer Willena 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.

The board took the vote after a closed session of about 40 minutes, which took place just after the start of their regularly scheduled monthly meeting.

The matter is slated to appear before a Superior Court Judge in January, with Hardin seeking to have certain records unsealed, and an attorney for the school board seeking to have the matter dismissed.

$10,000 settlement

In a different matter, the school board additionally approved a $10,000 settlement for student educational services regarding a contested case involving a Hoke County Schools student. Board member Keisha Gill read out a statement.

“On October 30, 2023 a petition for a contested case hearing was filed in the Office of Administrative Hearings on behalf of Hoke County Schools student C.W.,” she said. “On Tuesday, December 12, 2023, the Hoke County Board of Education approved a settlement agreement in this matter. The cost of the settlement agreement is $10,000 to be used toward the student’s educational services.”

The board did not need to vote on the unrelated settlement, according to the board’s attorney.

Blue is chair, McAllister-McRae is vice chair

The school board members elected a new chair and vice chair for the upcoming year. It is routine for elected boards to select their leadership at the first meeting in December.

The board members nominated and voted for Catherine Blue to serve as chairwoman, and for Rosa McAllister-McRae to serve as vice chairwoman of the school board. Blue and McAllister-McRae were the only nominees for each position, and were voted in without opposition.

New Superintendent introduced

At the start of the meeting, the board introduced Dr. Kenneth Spells, the new Hoke County Schools Superintendent who will start in January.

“This young man is someone that has a plethora of experience,” Southerland said as she introduced Spells.

By the second interview, “there was no doubt that we wanted him to be our new superintendent,” she said.

Spells thanked the board for “entrusting me with this honor.”

“I am so happy to be here. I grew up in Bladen County not too far from here, and it’s almost like a homecoming for me,” he said. “I’ve always liked Hoke County, heard a lot about Hoke County growing up. This is a special place, and we want to make this a great place, a destination district for everyone. We’re going to roll up our sleeves and we’re going to do some things to make this district special, but our focus is always going to be on the kids and making sure that the students in this district, they have opportunities to be great.”

Spells also thanked Interim Superintendent Dr. Rodney Shotwell, and the school district staff and community for their hospitality him.

“I’m looking forward to January 3,” he said.

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