LUMBERTON — The decision by the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County to begin a public process to select a new superintendent does not mean its potential legal troubles are over, according to a lawyer who filed a lawsuit alleging laws were broken in the aborted hiring of Thomas Graves.
“It’s a good start, the action they took,” said Gary Locklear, lead attorney of three representing a group of minor children. “It does not, in any way, form or fashion settle the matter.”
The Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education rescinded its effort to hire Graves as superintendent Monday in the shadow of a temporary restraining order granted by a Superior Court judge that prevented the execution of a contract. The attorneys argued the hiring followed illegal correspondence by at least six members of the board who voted in favor of firing Tommy Lowry on Jan. 10 and hiring Graves.
A full hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday. Local attorneys Joshua Malcolm and Tiffany Powers also are representing the plaintiffs.
Graves told The Robesonian he is still interested in becoming the superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County and intends to apply at the appropriate time.
“I’m excited about the opportunity and to help improve the schools,” Graves said. “If they don’t make some major changes they are going to remain to have consistently low-performing schools.”
The school board, in hiring Graves, violated its own policy that requires the position be advertised. One board member, Dwayne Smith, when asked about the violation, shrugged it off, saying the board often violates its own decision.
“We feel like we need to address this open meetings thing,” Locklear said. “It is one thing to violate policy. If we rescind Graves, we attend to the policy issues. But this does not resolve the open meetings claims at all.”
Six board members are named as individuals in the lawsuit, and were individually served with the restraining order moments before the board met Tuesday. They are Smith, Randy Lawson, Brian Freeman, Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, Charles Bullard and Steve Martin. All six supported the firing of Lowry and hiring of Graves. Because they are named as individuals, they cannot depend of schools attorney Grady Hunt to represent them, and also could be put at financial risk depending on what the court decides.
Immediately after the attempted appointment of Graves, nationally recognized educator Ben Chavis acted as booster for the candidate.
“If you read the paper it said my hands, my fingerprints were all over it — they are,” Chavis told the St. Pauls Board of Commissioners on Jan. 11.
“I would say Ben is responsible for getting my name to the right people,” Graves said earlier the same day.
However, since the allegations of illegal collusion surfaced, Chavis and Graves have backed off of those statements.
“I’ve never even said I was involved,” Chavis said Saturday. “I don’t know what happened before the meeting.”
“A couple of the board members asked me if I was interested and they did their thing,” Graves said Wednesday. “I don’t know if he (Chavis) played any role in getting my name in front of the board.”
Graves says that improving low-ranking schools is his specialty and that he is confident his credentials stack up against any other candidate. He also is keen to work with board, despite its divisions.
“All school boards are split … unfortunately that’s one of the greatest reasons (Robeson County) has been a low-performing school system. They don’t always appoint the best candidates.”
Four board members voted against Lowry’s firing: Chairman Loistine Defreece, Brenda Fairley Ferebee, Craig Lowry and Mike Smith. A fifth board member, John Campbell, missed the meeting but has been critical of what he called the “Six” on Facebook, saying not one of them would switch their vote to rehire Lowry.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly