Wake County Schools’ District 4 replacement saga continues

District 4 candidate withdrew following residency issue; board will reconsider previous applicants

Wake County School Board members discuss replacement processes for the District Four vacancy at a Jan. 25, 2022, special meeting.

RALEIGH — The saga continued as the Wake County School Board’s discussions for filling the vacant District 4 seat ran almost two hours at a Jan. 25 special called meeting.

At the onset of the meeting, Board Chair Lindsay Mahaffey said, “Never would we ever have imagined that someone would misrepresent their address” and that “Unfortunately that’s why we’re here today.”

The board debated whether or not to go with the current applicants and let their original applications stand or if the process should be opened back up to everyone, albeit with additional checks on residency validity.

Board member Karen Carter asked if Craston Artis would be allowed to reapply. The board’s attorney said it would not be illegal for him to reapply so long as he met all the requirements.

Ultimately, the board voted to reopen the application process starting in February.

The applicants who previously applied will be considered however all applicants now need to submit domicile proof that they live in District 4 and must also be registered to vote in the district before they are interviewed.

Citing a need for transparency and restoring public trust, Carter offered an amendment that the full board be informed if any of the board members are engaging in any type of communications with candidates.

Martin called the amendment a “reaction to the over-politicization” of the situation. He recommended voting down the amendment because it would be “too hard to keep track of” and it would have to apply to anyone contacting them and not just the candidates.

Monika Hostler acknowledged the loss of the public’s trust but took issue with the amendment and accused Carter of “making insinuations that some of us knew” about the Artis residency issues.

Kushner said they shouldn’t engage with anyone sending them information but didn’t say whether or not any information received should be shared with the entire board.

Carter withdrew her original amendment and it was replaced with new wording to bar board members from having discussions or communications with anyone other than staff about the district four vacancy. Any communications or information received would have to be shared with the full board.

The revised amendment passed despite Martin’s complaint it could create a policy easily violated and lead to more problems.

During earlier discussion, Carter also raised the point the current applications should stand citing that during the previous round of interviews that Mahaffey had previously said she verified the candidate addresses. Later, responding to a related question by Carter, Mahaffey said she asked Artis which address was his residency and he indicated the Pridwen apartment address on his resume was correct. Mahaffey said her verification of the address involved making sure it was located in District 4.

Heagarty argued that due to the current situation with Artis, the board needed to add criteria or document sources to draw from to ensure that residency criteria are satisfied.

Carter said the residency policy needed to be clarified, but that also the list of what documents are acceptable to prove residency similar to that of what is required for student assignment.

A draft timeline to fill the vacancy was approved by the board with an application period opening Feb. 1 and a submission deadline of Feb. 28 at 5 p.m. Interviews will take place on Mar. 3 and the selected candidate could be sworn in by Mar. 15.

Applicants will need to submit a resume, and three letters of recommendation. When applying, candidates should also include a letter of interest that is less than 5 pages “outlining the candidate’s background and listing three initiatives that can be implemented in the Board’s next Strategic Plan.”

Additionally, candidates will have to be 21 years or older, produce proof of domicile, and proof they are registered to vote in the district.

How residency issues upended an appointment

Earlier this week following a drawn-out fight over his district residency, Craston Artis, the board’s chosen candidate for the District 4 vacancy withdrew from consideration.

Craston Artis II

Artis was chosen in a seven to one vote to replace former Chair Keith Sutton in District four. Sutton resigned his position to become superintendent of Warren County Schools. Artis submitted his application on Dec. 7, just one day after Sutton made his departure announcement.

After the vote choosing Artis, evidence began mounting that he had not been living in district four when he applied for the spot.

In a Jan. 22 email to the board chair, Artis ignored the residency issue, writing that “In light of political concerns from a small group of citizens, I have reconsidered this as the proper time to seek appointment to the school board.”

Artis went on to write “I have also found myself in the middle of personal attacks from someone close to me. That said, I submit this as the official notice of withdrawal of my name from appointment to the school board at this time.”

The personal attacks alluded to by Artis could be a reference to his soon-to-be ex-wife Rebecca Jackson-Artis, who entered the conversation on Twitter on Jan. 21.

Responding to a tweet by board member Karen Carter, Jackson-Artis said that she’d be happy to attend the Jan. 25 meeting and that “I have all of the receipts. I’m his soon-to-be-ex-wife. I have dates and locations of residency.

Carter was the only member to raise objections and was the only “no” vote to Artis’ appointment.

Jackson-Artis also tweeted that she would be happy to have an official conversation with the board, however, she said the board members could have called her but no one did because they have a “personal agenda.”

“I don’t hold back speaking truth,” Jackson-Artis tweeted on Saturday, Jan. 21. “This is why no one in politics contacted me. I know people on the school board and they know me. They could’ve called me. They didn’t because everyone on that board has a personal agenda. I’m on no one’s side except the students of WCPSS.”

Jackson-Artis also told the News and Observer that “He would be a good asset to the Wake County school board, however, this is my issue with Craston. You should never get any position, whether it’s corporate or nonprofit or political office, based on lies and exaggeration.”

The mother of two Wake County students, Jackson-Artis also said her husband had been living in Goldsboro with his parents since April of 2021. In a video posted to her Facebook page, she said he had called her and told her he was going to be “voted on the school board” but that he didn’t tell her how he knew that was going to happen.

Address changes followed board application

Other documents included listed Artis’ address as 3221 Pridwen Circle Unit 207 in Raleigh. His voter registration address lists 3516 Pinkham Way in Raleigh, which is in District 1, not 4.

Artis did not respond to a request by North State Journal for clarification of his residency.

North State Journal also asked about Artis’ address discrepancy on Sunday, Jan. 16. WCPSS communications director Tim Simmons responded in an email that our request was being forwarded to the school board’s secretary. According to WCPSS policies, the secretary for the board is Superintendent Cathy Moore.

At the Jan. 18 Wake County school board meeting, Artis’s swearing-in was canceled without an explanation. At that same meeting, a parent also questioned Artis’ residency. That parent was Becky Lew-Hobbs, who tweeted on Jan. 25 that she emailed the board to apply for the seat but Mahaffey “has not replied.”

“We need transparency. I’m a long time D4 resident. It’s time for a change,” Lew-Hobb’s tweet said in part.

In a subsequent email to North State Journal on Jan. 19, Simmons said Artis’ swearing-in “was postponed after questions arose regarding his current address. He is in touch with the board attorney and board chair.”  North State Journal then learned Artis was being asked to provide residency verification to the board.

Sometime between North State Journal’s inquiry and the Jan. 18 school board meeting, Artis changed his voter registration address to the Pridwen Circle address. Sources tell North State Journal that Artis also changed the address on his driver’s license on Jan. 19.

Additionally, documents provided through a records request show Artis did not submit a copy of a current lease, but instead a copy of a lease application for the Pridwen address located in the Waverly Apartment complex. The effective lease dates on the application are after he applied to join the school board, running from Jan. 8 through Nov. 7, 2022.

Further confusing the residency matter was an email about the apartment rental sent by Artis to Mahaffey. In the email, Artis claims he made his first rental payment on Dec. 6 of 2021. The email seemed to imply he had not yet moved into the Pridwen address, with Artis telling Mahaffey that he “was told on January 7th my moving in would be delayed.”

A search of Wake County public records showed no tax records for Craston Artis.

Board inconsistent in residency disqualifications

In interviews with the potential candidates, there were six people who applied to fill the seat, including one person the board disqualified because their application address was not in District 4.

At around the 12-minute mark of the video of the interviews, Mahaffey stated “If they live out of the district, that was an easy call because they’re not eligible.”

Later in the interviews, board member Chris Heagarty said that “There are certain things required by law to be eligible; living in the district for example” and that “If you don’t live in the district, that disqualifies you from the process.”

The situation surrounding the board’s statements during the interview process and Artis’ residency issues has prompted Steve Bergstrom, a 2022 candidate for the Wake County school board, to ask state Superintendent Catherine Truitt for an investigation.

In a Jan. 14 letter to Truitt, Bergstrom asks for “a formal investigation into fraud and misconduct by the Wake County School Board, focusing on the actions of the board’s chair, Lindsay Mahaffey.”

“The board was tasked with appointing the vacant District Four seat. By a vote of 7-1, a candidate who does not reside in Wake County was appointed, which is obviously against policy,” Bergstrom wrote, who went on to say Artis had submitted a fraudulent residence address at the time he applied.

Bergstrom notes that Mahaffey agreed to give Artis an extension to produce proof of residence, “which should have been provided during the interview process” and that after a week went by, “Mr. Artis could still not produce evidence of residence.”

“Mr. Artis’ estranged wife finally came forward to the public to reveal Craston Artis lives in Goldsboro, in Wayne County. Mrs. Artis also said her husband knew two to three weeks before the interviews he would be chosen as the appointee, raising not just ethical, but legal questions,” wrote Bergstrom.
“Clearly the process was fixed, warranting an investigation.”

In his letter, Bergstrom also claims there is a prior monetary relationship between Artis and the district.

“It has also been revealed Mr. Artis’ consulting firm was paid by Wake County Schools for services, causing some to raise even more ethics questions about favoritism,” Bergstrom wrote.

The website for Artis Consulting mentions doing work in the past with “Chicago Public Schools, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and the Wake County Schools Office of Equity Affairs.”

WCPSS communications director Lisa Luten confirmed to North State Journal that there is “no record of any contract from or any payments to any known company related to Mr. Artis.”  Organizations checked for by WCPSS tied to Artis included Artis Consulting, B.R.E.A.D. Group LLC, DocWmsOne, E. Fusion Solutions, and EngageWIT.

However, records previously provided by the district related to Office of Equity Affairs (OEA) expenditures show two transactions, one for $7200 on Feb. 26, 2018, and another for $7,050 on May 5, 2018.

Additionally, in 2017 there were two payments to Artis Consulting in November related to a book study. One was for $13,500 and another for $15,000.

North State Journal contacted the district about the 2017 and 2018 payments. Luten said in an email that her original search only went back to 2020 and later responded with copies of the contracts confirming the details.

Artis apparently did not divulge his prior financial relationship with the OEA to the board or the district.

The state superintendent will not be entering into the fray, according to Department of Public Instruction Communications Director Blair Rhoades.

“Neither the State Board nor the State Superintendent has jurisdiction to investigate or take action against a local board of education on matters of how it chooses replacements for exiting board members,” Rhoades told North State Journal in an email. “The state statutes and local acts put all the authority for those matters in the hands of the local boards in the case of nonpartisan boards and in local political parties in the case of partisan boards.”

Artis wanted to focus on “Equity”

Artis had said that his primary focus would be “equity,” yet the resume provided by Artis to the WCPSS board omitted his affiliation with the “Black Teacher Collaborative,” a non-profit which espouses a philosophy that includes “diversity strategies.”

The Black Teacher Collaborative also focuses on topics tied to Critical Race Theory such as “inclusion initiatives and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) training.”

During his interview process, he told school board members he would push to fill the leadership vacancy left by Rodney Trice, the former leader of the OEA.

Trice resigned his position in May of 2021, following North State Journal reporting on an “Intro to Critical Race Theory” course being offered to teachers in the district as well as talking points Trice gave to the school board denying the use of Critical Race Theory by the district. At the time he resigned, WCPSS was paying Trice a salary of $141,767.

A second OEA member, Directs Lauryn Mascareñaz, departed in late November of 2021. Her annual salary at the time of her resignation was $83,309.

North State Journal’s analysis of the running budget total for the WCPSS OEA was over $8.69 million as of the 2021-22 school year. Records also show the high cost of OEA workshops, training, and related expenses. A consolidated summary by description and year reveals a total amount of over $2.64 million.

Staff salary and benefits make up a large part of the department’s annual budget. Not including Trice and Mascareñaz compensation for the remaining five OEA staffers totaled $509,549 during the 2021-22 school year.

The OEA has drawn criticism for teacher professional development training utilizing Critical Race Theory, which has included topics like “white privilege,” “white supremacy,” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.”

After reporting by the North State Journal, WCPSS dropped a course called “Intro to Critical Race Theory” which was to be provided by The Equity Collaborative co-founded by current state Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Orange).

In an exclusive series last June, OEA equity training documents were provided to North State Journal by a whistleblower. The training spanned three sessions was titled, “Working Towards an Anti-Racist Approach.” The training included sessions on “culturally sustaining pedagogy,” “anti-bias education,” and “anti-racist education.”

Over multiple years going back to 2015, The Equity Collaborative (TEC) was paid around $1.29 million in fees. Of those fees, $325,000 spanned four North Carolina public school districts. Records requests revealed $207,500 in contracts between WCPSS and TEC.  Outside of North Carolina, around $905,000 in fees and purchase orders were discovered through records requests.

Parents have complained that the OEA relies on questionable materials from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s education activism group, Learning for Justice. Parents have also taken issue with the OEA’s use and reference to The Zinn Ed Project, an organization named after the late Howard Zinn, a historian whose work critics have pointed out has a Marxist and anti-American bent.

Recommendations and OEA connections

Among the documents supporting Artis’ candidacy to replace Sutton are two recommendation letters, one from State Board of Education member James Ford and another from Letha Muhammad, executive director of the Education Justice Alliance.

Apart from their recommendation letter, Ford and Muhammad seem to have overlapping connections with Artis when it comes to WCPSS and the OEA.

Muhammad’s Education Justice Alliance was one of several social and racial justice groups involved in in a U.S. Office of Civil Rights complaint against WCPSS over racial discipline rates. That complaint was the basis for the formation of the OEA by the district in 2013.

Ford has been a long-time vocal proponent of “racial equity” and in early 2021 supported changes to the state’s Social Studies Standards. Critics, including Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, pointed out the changes contained elements of Critical Race Theory. The standards were eventually approved by the board by a vote of seven to five.

A former state teacher of the year, Ford co-founded an organization called the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED), a nonprofit based in North Carolina that is “actively pursuing racial justice by closing the knowing-doing gap in the field and filling an organizational void in the state.”

CREED played a part a remotely conducted April 2021 event held by the Rolesville Chamber of Commerce where both Artis and Muhammed were invited speakers. The topic was “Educational Disparities among Historically Marginalized Populations.” While presenting, Artis talked about the promotion of “racial equity” and the “equitable access” to rigorous coursework and noted the source of his presentation was Ford’s CREED.

Evidence Ford and the WCPSS board appear to have been familiar with Artis prior to his application to join the board includes Artis’ association with one of the OEA’s partners, the Community Equity Leadership Team (CELT).

According to the WCPSS OEA website, CELT includes “community leaders, faith-based organizations, and civic groups to advise the school system on equity-related issues, concerns, and initiatives.”

Another one of the partner groups connected to CELT is Muhammad’s Education Justice Alliance.

Jumping back a few years to 2019, Ford penned a series of articles at EducationNC, one of which was titled, “Wake County leading the way in educational equity.” The article promoted the WCPSS OEA and CELT, of which Artis was a founding member.

The year prior, during public comments at the May 1, 2018, WCPSS board meeting, Artis took the podium to praise the OEA and the continued funding of the office to “train and coach teachers.” He also said that “CELT is continuing to push forward with their work” including creating policies to make the board’s work “easier.”

The resume Artis submitted with his Wake County school board application omitted his involvement with CELT.

 

This article has been updated to reflect confirmation of payment information to Atis Consulting.

About A.P. Dillon 660 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_