Schools get stuck with $15K bill for attorney’s fee

By Mike Gellatly -

LUMBERTON — The Public Schools of Robeson County will have to pay the $15,000 attorney’s bill for the six members of the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County who were sued individually for attempting to hire a new superintendent without advertising the position and in violation of their own policy.

“The N.C. School Boards Association declined to pay so PSRC will submit a check to Mr. Yarborough tomorrow,” Erica Setzer, finance officer for the school system, wrote in an email Wednesday.

In January, six members of the school board voted to fire Superintendent Tommy Lowry and then to bring in Virginia-based educator Thomas Graves. The six were sued in their capacity as school board members and as individuals, with an allegation that their coup had been hatched in violation of open meetings laws. They hired Fayetteville attorney Neil Yarborough to represent them individually.

Yarborough, of the firm Yarborough, Winters and Neville, submitted his $15,000 fee to the school board at the end of January. The local school board sent the bill to the North Carolina School Boards Association but it refused payment.

Charles Bullard, Brian Freeman, Randy Lawson, Steve Martin, Dwayne Smith and Peggy Wilkins-Chavis were the six who on Jan. 10 voted to fire Lowry and to offer a contract to Graves, doing so in what amounted to an ambush of the other five members of the board who said they had no idea of what was about to happen.

That triggered a split on the school board that culminated weeks later when members unanimously rescinded their move to hire Graves after it was discovered the hiring violated PSRC’s own policy and after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Robeson County students. The policy states all positions must be advertised publicly.

The lawsuit, which was brought by three local attorneys, was on behalf of two Robeson County students who have remained anonymous. The lawyers, Gary Locklear, Joshua Malcolm and Tiffany Powers, provided their services for free, and said they dropped the lawsuit because their clients could have been exposed to financial liability.

The school board has begun a search for a new superintendent with the help of the North Carolina School Boards Association. That effort includes advertising the position.

Graves had said publicly he intends to apply for the position.

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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