LUMBERTON — Ben Chavis gladly took credit for his part in uniting six of 11 Robeson County school board members to support firing Superintendent Tommy Lowry, whom he contends was unqualified for the position and never should have been hired to lead the school district.
“He’s a loser … . He should never have been hired. He wasn’t qualified and didn’t have the credentials,” said Chavis, a Lumbee author and educator known for his success in turning around student achievement in an Indian charter school in California. “Just look at the numbers. In 2015, 95 percent of Robeson County high school seniors who took the ACT math section failed. The new board had to buy his contract out to get someone in the superintendent’s position who can get the job done.
“Everyone says that Tommy is a nice guy. But we don’t need a nice guy. We need a leader.”
Lowry was fired Tuesday. His $180,000 a year contract was bought out and his replacement, Thomas Graves, an educator from Virginia, was hired the same day. Four of the board members present at Tuesday’s meeting — Chairman Loistine DeFreece, Craig Lowry, Brenda Fairley-Ferebee and Mike Smith — said they knew nothing about the plans to oust Lowry and had been provided no information about the new superintendent. A fifth board member, John Campbell, was absent.
Chavis said he brought Graves to the attention of several board members. He said he met Graves and saw what he had done to improve schools in New Mexico.
“This guy is fantastic,” Chavis said. “He can get the things done here in Robeson County that will improve our schools … . He has said that if he can’t improve the schools we can fire him.”
According to information gathered by The Robesonian, Graves describes himself as a “school improvement specialist.” He has relocated to several positions around the country in an effort to improve standards at failing schools.
An all-American track star out of Auburn University who took part in Olympic trials, Graves has said he has a no-nonsense approach to his duties and stresses discipline and regiment with his students. He also said he does not let politics interfere with his job of doing what is best for students.
Graves, who was in Robeson County on Wednesday and plans to be touring the county again today, said he sees “great potential” for the county schools to significantly improve. He said he will sign a contract with the school district today.
“The biggest challenge I see in Robeson County is to get the board to work together to improve education,” Graves said. “… A lot of school boards are about power and control and not about student success.”
Graves said he met Chavis in October when Chavis did some in-service work at his school in New Mexico. It was shortly after that visit that he began receiving calls from county school board members saying they were interested in possibly hiring him.
“I would say Ben is responsible for getting my name to the right people,” Graves said.
Graves said Wednesday that the way the Robeson County school board handled his hiring may not make it easy to get board members to work together.
“But this is the way they hired the former superintendent,” he said.
Lowry became superintendent after former Superintendent Johnny Hunt retired at the end of June 2015. A former assistant county superintendent, he 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.
Board member Dwayne Smith said the six members of the Robeson County Board of Education who bypassed the rest of the school board to find a superintendent to replace Tommy Lowry did nothing illegal.
“Everything we did we did legally,” he said. “We are dealing with just a simple contract. We can buy him (Lowry) out anytime.”
Smith said he is pleased with the hiring of Graves.
“I’ve met and spoken with him and he will do an excellent job. You’ve got to look at the big picture,” Smith said. “We have to do something to improve our schools. If we keep doing the same old thing we are getting nowhere.”
Smith said that if Graves does not produce in 18 months, the length of Lowry’s contract that he will be finishing out, “we get rid of him.”
Board member Mike Smith, however, strongly condemned the process used to oust Lowry and bring in a new superintendent. He described it as “terrible.”
“I have never in 26 years seen anything like this,” said Smith, a board member for that length of time. “I compare it to the statement when man first walked on the moon. Remember when it was said that the moon walk was a giant leap forward for mankind? Well this is a giant leap backwards (for the county school system) … . I see nothing good coming out of this.”
Smith also expressed his concern of how much the buyout of Lowry’s contract and cost of hiring a new superintendent will be.
“It will be well in excess of the $180,000,” he said.
The buyout for Lowry’s contract is reportedly one year’s salary, or $180,000.
Graves said he has not seen his contract, but said he has been told it will be the same as Lowry’s, the salary being $180,000 a year. He also said he has told the board he will renegotiate the contract at the end of the school year because that offers the board an opportunity to evaluate his work.
Attempts by two members of The Robesonian staff to connect with any other members of the school board on Wednesday were unsuccessful, but on Tuesday night both DeFreece and Fairley-Ferebee said on social media they will seek legal action to stop the firing of Lowry. Both said there were no credible reasons Lowry’s dismissal and the action was “personal.”
School board Attorney Grady Hunt said after Tuesday’s meeting that the process was legal.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.