PEMBROKE — Superintendent Tommy Lowry was fired Tuesday without explanation and his replacement hired by six members of the school board whom Lowery’s defenders said planned the ambush.
No reason was offered publicly for buying out Lowry’s contract and hiring a superintendent who is from Virginia. Lowry’s dismissal is immediate, with Assistant Superintendent Shanita Wooten to take over as interim superintendent duties until Feb. 1.
Board Chairman Loistine DeFreece and board members Craig Lowry, Brenda Fairley Ferebee and Mike Smith voiced outrage that six members of the board took it upon themselves to meet with someone concerning the superintendent’s position without discussing the issue with them. According to all four of Lowry’s defenders, they have been provided no information about Thomas Graves, who is to replace Lowry, including his qualifications for the superintendent’s position. They also said they weren’t told before Tuesday’s meeting that a move to buy out Lowry’s contract was going to be brought up in a closed session.
Lowry has served as superintendent since former Superintendent Johnny Hunt retired at the end of June 2015. Lowry was working under a three-year, $180,000-a-year contract that runs through June 30, 2018.
Lowry, a former assistant superintendent in Robeson County, was offered the superintendent’s job after the board voted 6 to 5 to hire Rick Watkins, an educator from Hamlet. Watkins withdrew his candidacy after he was attacked publicly during a school board meeting.
“This is one giant leap backwards as far as I’m concerned,” longtime board member Mike Smith said. “… I have never seen anything like this. This is going to cost us more than $180,000.”
None of the six who voted to hire Graves could answer questions about him asked by other board members. Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, who made the motion to buy out the superintendent’s contract and hire Graves, couldn’t tell board members where in Virginia Graves lives or what his qualifications are. All she could say is that he is certified in three states, is “getting certification in North Carolina” and has served as a superintendent. She was reluctant to tell board members how they can contact Graves.
“The contract will include all of the details,” she said.
In addition to Wilkins-Chavis, those voting to buy out the superintendent’s contract and hire Graves were Dwayne Smith, Brian Freeman, Randy Lawson, Steve Martin and Charles Bullard. Bullard voted by phone. John Campbell was not present at the meeting.
“This is disgraceful,” DeFreece said. “This is nothing at all about performance. It’s all personal. Those in Robeson County should take action against this recommendation. I will personally take all the legal action possible.”
Fairley Ferebee said she plans to ask for a state investigation into how the current school board is addressing issues.
Although not specifically named as the reason for Tuesday’s board action, Craig Lowry, who was not a board member when Tommy Lowry was hired, suggested that board members supporting the hiring of a new superintendent are trying to correct what they perceive as a mistake.
“Even if this board is trying to correct a mistake made by the last board, why correct it after 18 months?” Lowry said. ” … This is just wrong. There has been no reason given for this action.”
Dwayne Smith, who in the past objected to Lowry being hired instead of Watkins, refused to comment about the action taken Tuesday.
“We had the votes,” he said as he left the meeting with a smile.
Lowry would not comment and declined to say whether or not he will seek any legal action against the board.
In other business, the board was told the state will pay the cost of a consultant to help the Public Schools of Robeson County work with FEMA in order for the district to be reimbursed for expenses incurred during Hurricane Matthew.
Billy Owens, the state’s liaison between the school district and FEMA, said the state is making a consultant available to the district at no charge to provide the same consulting services that independent consultants are offering.
“We are going to work for you the same as a consultant,” he said. “…We don’t want you to have to spend out of your pocket. We are here to help you prepare your documents so you can submit them to FEMA for reimbursement. We will be here for you until the end.”
Officials in Raleigh are well aware of the damage suffered in Robeson County resulting from Hurricane Matthew, Owens said.
“You guys are on the radar in Raleigh, as are the Housing Authority and the city (Lumberton). We are going to do all we can to help. That’s why we brought in a guy just to help you.”
The school district already has hired a consultant. No decision was made on whether or not the district will use the services of both a private consultant and a state consultant.
The board on Tuesday also:
— Recognized the winners of art and essay contests sponsored by the Robeson County Community Advisory Board on Diabetes. Each of three art winners and three essay winners received certificates and a $100 gift card.
“One out of five in Robeson County have diabetes,” said the Rev. Mac Legerton, the executive director of the Center for Community Action in Lumberton and an advisory board member. “If we follow national trends that could soon be one out of four and then one out of three.”
Winners of the art contest were Shaniz Zangana, sixth grade, Red Springs Middle School, first place; Viviana Lazaro-Cortez, 11th grade, St. Pauls High School, second place; and Kaylan Chavis, 12th grade, St. Pauls High School, third place.
Essay winners were Alayna Ivey, 12th grade, St. Pauls High School, first place; Besaida Victoria, 12th grade, St. Pauls High School, second place; and Celeste Santibanez, third place.
— Recognized Linda Trent, a bus driver for Lumberton High School for 13 years, as the district’s Bus Driver of the Month for December.
— Recognized Tammy Wynne, a teacher’s assistant with exceptional children at South Robeson High School for 18 years, as the district’s Classified Employee of the Month for December.
— Recognized Gaye Cushing, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Fairmont Middle School for 12 years, as the district’s Certified Employee of the Month for December.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.