School board sets new superintendent up for failure

So how did six members of our 11-member Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County succeed in Tuesday’s coup, firing one school superintendent and then hiring another moments later, without violating the spirit of the state’s open meetings law, if not its letter?

They didn’t.

The open meetings law forbids more than a majority of the board from meeting outside the public’s purview to conduct business, and while we can’t say with certainty that Dwayne Smith, Randy Lawson, Charles Bullard, Brian Freeman, Steve Martin and Peggy Wilkins-Chavis hatched the plan while huddled at the same table for lunch, we will say this with clarity: What they did was offensive, conducting school board business in private, arrogantly and without regard to the public’s right to know what’s up.

None of what we will say in today’s Our View has anything to do with the job Tommy Lowry was doing as schools superintendent, or the job we expect that his replacement, Thomas Graves, with whom we are only now acquainting ourselves, will do.

Lowry labored under difficult circumstances, having been hired when the board’s first choice withdrew his name after being publicly attacked by two board members, and then having to work for a board that can’t agree on much. Matthew wasn’t his friend, either, destroying the central office, robbing students of threes weeks of classes, and putting the superintendent himself driving a school bus because, well, a bus needed driving.

We only know what the Internet has told us about Graves, but suspect we know more about him than one or more of the six board members who voted to hire him for a job that so much of our county’s future depends on being performed well.

As we suspected, this deal was orchestrated by Ben Chavis, the controversial educator of Lumbee descent famous for his work at an American Indian charter school in California that was chronicled on a segment on “60 Minutes,” but also for his outspokenness, his vulgarity, his often over-the-top criticism of fellow members of his tribe — and his obvious belief that the only way to fix our public schools is to first blow them up.

While we knew his fingerprints were all over this, what we didn’t expect was a phone call from him Wednesday morning taking ownership. The six board members are not much more than a pawn in his game, taking orders from Chavis who in a story today called Lowry a “loser.”

We debated its inclusion, but we see no reason to protect Chavis from his own words. He knew who he was talking to and what he was saying.

The problem, in addition to six board members showing blatant disregard for the public’s right to know, is that Chavis wasn’t elected to the school board, and the public has not given him the keys to run the public schools.

It didn’t take long until we heard a comparison made to how Graves has been hired to the hiring of Lowry, except that they aren’t similar at all: The hiring of Lowry was at the end of a very long public process that was assisted by the North Carolina Association of School Boards, and included advertising the position, screening applicants, interviews, and involved all of the members of the school board. This newspaper followed along and reported what we could.

Graves has been hired privately without the position being advertised, without the help of the North Carolina Association of School Boards, and without his introduction to at least five board members, probably more. Our only reporting came after the deed was done.

It’s not that we are satisfied with the status quo, or that we reject a nuclear approach, but the manner Graves was hired undermines him as everyone — administrators, teachers, the school board, and the public — need to grab the same end of the rope to pull the system forward.

The foundation that these six board members have laid for Graves’ success is pretty wobbly. It seems to us he has been set up for failure.

We will be glad to be wrong.

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