LUMBERTON — Some called for their resignations, others for their firings, and still others for impeachment, but all had the same message: The six members of the county Board of Education who voted to summarily dismiss Superintendent Tommy Lowry and hire Thomas Graves must be held accountable for their actions that now have the system and themselves individually facing a lawsuit that could get costly — and could hand taxpayers a big buyout bill.
Hundreds of concerned parents, educators, residents and some members of the school board gathered Thursday evening in the Department of Social Services building in Lumberton for the first meeting of the Concerned Citizens of Robeson County, which formed in response to the firing of Lowry and quick attempted hire of Graves, which was rescinded when the board acknowledged it violated its own policy by not advertising the position.
That will now happen — and Graves, a Virginia educator with a tough-guy reputation, says he is still interested in applying.
“We ask our children to be accountable for their actions at home … and in the classroom,” said Matthew Scott, parent and meeting emcee. “If we expect it from our children, we should expect it from those who lead our children.”
The board on Monday rescinded its effort to hire Graves. That emergency meeting took place hours after a temporary restraining order was granted by a Superior Court judge to block Graves’ appointment.
Former Superior Court Judge Gary Locklear, lead attorney in the lawsuit filed Monday, updated the crowd on the ongoing legal battle in which it is alleged board members colluded illegally to oust Lowry and hire Graves. The lawsuits contends those actions could not have been done without violating the state’s open meeting law, and a court has asked school board members to turn over correspondence such as emails and phone call records that might demonstrate if that did happen.
The other lawyers involved with the suit are Tiffany Powers and Joshua Malcolm.
“I’m not a dumb Indian,” Locklear said. “We will find out all the backroom shenanigans.”
Locklear’s comment, greeted with loud applause, referenced a comment by Ben Chavis, a nationally renowned educator, made in St. Pauls the day after the school board’s Jan. 10 meeting during which Lowry was fired. Chavis, an American Indian, said he had never been hired by the school system because “I don’t say what those dumb Indians want me to say.”
At that meeting in St. Pauls, Chavis said “his fingerprints” were on the deal that brought Graves to Robeson County.
He has subsequently distanced himself from the “dumb Indian” comment, saying it has been taken out of context, and also has minimized his role in introducing Graves to the school board.
Other speakers discussed the financial damage done through the firing of Lowry and a loss of trust in board members who allegedly colluded out of public sight.
The buyout has obligated the system to pay Lowry at least his $180,000 a year salary, as well as for benefits and other perks, and there is concern the system will have to pay for the entire length of his contract, which had run through June 30, 2018. An effort by some board members to rehire Lowry on Monday failed.
Board member John Campbell, who missed the Jan. 10 meeting, put on Facebook that none of what he called the “Six” would switch their vote for the rehiring of the former superintendent.
Board member Craig Lowry, who voted against firing Lowry and hiring Graves, said talk of buying out Lowry’s contract costing between $230,000 and $270,000 was low.
“There are some other state penalties we could pay,” he said. “Folks, this could end up being $400,000 to $500,000.”
He was joined at the meeting by two other board members, Chairman Loistine Defreece and Mike Smith.
The six board members who moved to fire Lowry and hire Graves are Dwyane Smith, Randy Lawson, Brian Freeman, Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, Charles Bullard and Steve Martin. None were at the meeting Thursday.
“Those six board members, they were not thinking of you last Tuesday when they made those decisions,” said Crystal Moore, a mother of two Prospect Elementary School students who called for action from the board to begin a healing process. “For the six, it should come in the form of a resignation.”
More loud applause followed.
While much of the focus was on the effect to students, a retired Robeson County businessman spoke of the potential fiscal fallout.
“I’m not here as a citizen of Robeson County, I’m not here as a supporter of Robeson County schools … I’m here as a taxpayer,” Aiden Marshall said.
The six board members had sewn “moral and ethical mistrust” and talk of asking them to resign was overly polite, he said.
“They should be fired,” he said to a roar of support, “in my taxpaying opinion.”
Other community leaders had told The Robesonian the bad publicity hurts the county’s efforts to attrack industry, new businesses and professionals such a physicians and teachers for the schools.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or on Twitter @MikeGellatly