By Connie Leinbach
After almost four years overseeing Hyde County Schools, Superintendent Stephen Basnight will retire from public education on April 1.
In an interview Thursday, Basnight said the Hyde County Board of Education is finalizing a plan to find a replacement.
At a special meeting Monday night, he said, Board Chair Randy Etheridge resigned and Angie Todd, the Ocracoke representative, was elected board chair. Thomas Whitaker will remain as vice-chair.
Basnight began his tenure in Hyde County in the fall of 2018.
After Hurricane Dorian flooded the island and devastated all five of Ocracoke School’s buildings, he was on the ground on the island right after the storm leading a team to figure out how to resume classes and also deal with rebuilding the campus buildings.
Inundated were the gym, the main building, the first floor of the elementary building, the library building and the industrial arts building.
Twenty-two and a half days after Dorian, classes resumed in the NCCAT building, the second floor of the elementary building and the Ocracoke Child Care building.
Then, while working on Ocracoke’s rebuild and overseeing the mainland campuses, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020 necessitating another, multi-pronged scramble.
As to why he is leaving in the middle of the school year, Basnight said the date doesn’t matter. Superintendents work year-round.
“If the last two or three years have been an example of anything, there’s not a good time,” he said. “It’s one thing to say that the school year goes from August to June, but this job doesn’t change.”
He did say that owing to some family issues it’s time for him to return to Manteo, Dare County.
“My dad’s going through some medical things and my mother-in-law’s going through some things and my daughter is in middle school and I just feel like it’s time to go home,” he said.
Concurrent to Basnight and his team figuring out how to hold classes without any buildings, Basnight, along with Randal Mathews, who was then still working for CenturyLink, figured out how to boost the internet power to the NCCAT.
Mathews is now the Hyde County commissioner for Ocracoke.
The NCCAT leadership graciously allowed the Ocracoke School to hold middle and high school classes in their building for over a year until the temporary modular units were installed on the school campus in 2020.
“They typically would have about 25 people at NCCAT at a time,” Basnight said about this resource for teacher enrichment. “And we were bringing in 91 kids and 20 staff members and the internet just wouldn’t handle it.”
So, they had to increase the internet, which emanates from the CenturyLink station on Cedar Road, down from the bank.
Laying fiber cables through Ocracoke Village was not going to happen, Mathews said in an interview.
While working inside the NCCAT tower, they could see the CenturyLink microwave tower across the harbor and landed on trying to broadcast the signal from there to NCCAT.
Basnight pushed behind the scenes with CenturyLink and worked with Rep. Bobby Hanig to get about $90,000 to pay for the work, Mathews said, while Mathews did the technical work with assistance from Tyler Gilbert to add in the wiring.
“He is just a first-class guy,” Mathews said about Basnight. “I mean, he has so much experience. He’s a people person and is really resourceful. He won’t take no for an answer.”
From that innovation, Basnight was able to boost the Internet signal in a 4.5-mile radius from the Engelhard water tower using television white space, which is signal that’s still being sent out from the old analog television system of UHF.
This extra broadband is in addition to the Starlink program that Ocracoke students have been a part of since last year. Basnight said the program expanded to 47 more units put in use in the western end of Hyde County where internet signal is weak.
“You just can’t imagine the things I’ve learned,” he said with a chuckle.
During the height of the pandemic when the state shut down schools from March until about mid-May in 2020, Basnight kept food service workers working.
The cafeteria on the Mattamuskeet campus would fix breakfasts and lunches for the entire student population.
“And then the bus drivers and our teacher assistants would get on the buses with all the food and they would run their normal routes,” he said. “And we added the kids that didn’t usually ride a bus to the route and we dropped off breakfast and lunch every day.”
The same was done on Ocracoke using the NCCAT food service.
“We were able to employ their staff to prepare lunches for pickup for kids on Ocracoke Island to come over to NCCAT to pick up lunches each day there as well,” he said.
He thinks about 92% of the student population was fed this way during the lockdown.
Funding for the meals was through the state Department of Public Instruction, which also got federal reimbursement.
“To be able to use all of those resources in a way that that kept our people employed and took care of our kids at the same time, it just was fantastic,” he said.
During the crisis, Hyde County students showed they could continue their course works through a new to them process called remote learning.
This was something Basnight was working on before the pandemic hit because, even though Hyde, Dare and Currituck counties rarely have snow days, they have other weather problems that force school closures.
Basnight said he’d been working on remote learning plans for that.
“So, by the time we got to the spring of 2020, before the March 13 school shutdown, we had a plan in place,” he said
Yes, everyone’s performance dropped during that time out of the traditional classroom, he said.
“But when we got our data back at the end of the last year, we actually improved,” he said. “We were No. 1 in northeast North Carolina, in math-1 performance, which is generally ninth grade.”
After increasing rigor and student performance outcomes in Hyde County Schools, Mattamuskeet Early College was recognized by the N. C. Department of Public Instruction representing Northeast North Carolina as one of only seven schools with “Promising Practices”by “Expanding Career-Ready Pathways” through their partnership with Beaufort County Community College to maximize student opportunities and offering college courses at both the high school and the college.
Basnight has spent 37 years in education, having worked in Dare and Currituck counties as a teacher, coach and principal before taking the superintendent job for Hyde.
To him, despite the separation between campuses of 23 miles of water, it’s all in service to the kids.
“Educating students is a driving force in everything we’ve done,” he said.
He said he’s comfortable with where Hyde County schools are.
“I think that we’re going in the right direction as long as we keep the kids out there first,” he said. “This isn’t about me. It’s not been about me. It’s about educating children. And that can happen whether I’m sitting in this office or anyone else is sitting here. I’m just blessed to be where I can be used.”
Ocracoke School Principal Leslie Cole said she has enjoyed working with him and is grateful for all he has done for Ocracoke and Hyde County.
“We will miss him greatly,” she said in a statement. “His steadfast leadership during Dorian and the pandemic was much appreciated and I can’t tell you how much I will miss his wisdom and advice. I wish him all the best.”