Split Robeson board begins search for superintendent

By Mike Gellatly - mgellatly@civitasmedia.com

LUMBERTON — At least two members of the Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education are skeptical that a fair, open and honest search for a superintendent can happen, even as that board is on the eve of launching that effort.

On Tuesday, the Board of Education is expected to start its hunt for a new superintendent by hearing a representative of the North Carolina School Boards Association, which will assist in the search. The board usually meets the second Tuesday of the month, but this month it was delayed a week, apparently to accommodate the state association. Another change is the meeting will be at the Lumberton City Hall beginning at 6 p.m.

The system’s central office was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew, and the board had been meeting at COMtech near Pembroke before moving to back to Lumberton.

Allison Schafer, an attorney with the North Carolina School Boards Association, is scheduled to speak about the search to replace fired Superintendent Tommy Lowry. The system pays the association to act in an advisory capacity, with helping the board advertise the position and screen the applicants being among those duties.

But Brenda Fairley-Ferebee isn’t convinced board members will be listening.

“We are too divided,” she said. “… Everyone knows how you are going to vote all the time.”

The board split over the firing last month of Lowry, and an aborted attempt by six members to hire Virginia-based educator Thomas Graves. effort was made in violation of the board’s policy to advertise the position, raised accusations that some board members violated open-meetings laws, and prompted a lawsuit.

Fairley-Ferebee believes the board is not in a position to make a consensus decision.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever scene,” said Fairley-Ferebee, who has represented District 2 since 1996.

Fairley-Ferebee believes the board’s desire to “micromanage” those it hires is not in the best interest of the students and handcuffs the superintendent.

“We have to hold them accountable, but allow them to do their job,” she said. “Don’t squash them.”

Board member Mike Smith, who has worked with five superintendents while representing District 6, supported Lowry and opposed the hiring of Graves.

Smith feels that Graves’ actions when he came to Robeson County were unprofessional and that it would be difficult to overcome that.

“He’d have to be mighty strong,” Smith said.

Graves, who was introduced to the board by educator Ben Chavis, has maintained that he is the right man for the Robeson County job. Semi-retired, Graves lives on a farm in Virginia. He has the reputation of being a short-term superintendent who works with struggling school districts to turn them around, valuing discipline.

After the board voted to hire Graves, he attended a meeting of the St. Pauls Board of Commissioners during which Chavis urged the commissioners to work to defeat Smith as the town’s school board representative.

Chavis at that meeting made racially-charged comments, including referring to what he has since said are “dumb Indians” who run the school system. He has said that his comments were taken out of context, that he was also critical of people within the system of other color who have protected the status quo.

The school board in 2015 also divided when it came time to hire a superintendent in 2015. An offer was made to Rick Watkins, a member of the faculty at Wingate College, and after he accepted, some board members criticized him publicly for speaking with The Robesonian newspaper. Watkins then declined to sign a contract, and a split board moved to hire Lowry, a longtime assistant superintendent who had not applied for the position,

Board Chairman Loistine DeFreese did not respond to repeated calls and emails requesting comment. The Robesonian attempted to get comments from several other board members, but received no return phone calls.

Among other items on the agenda are: Certified/Classified Employees; Bus Driver of the Month; Colgate Dental Van; “Good Morning America” update; NCHSAA donation; Regional Assistant Teacher of the Year; Barnes and Noble Book Drive; and FEMA.



By Mike Gellatly


Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly

Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly

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