A key component of any compromise is that each side can try to spin it as a win, and that was the case on Thursday as the fractured Board of Education for the Public Schools tried to close the door on a sad chapter and get back to the business of working to provide a quality education for this county’s children.
The Six who were targeted in a lawsuit — board members Dwayne Smith, Randy Lawson, Steve Martin, Charles Bullard, Brian Freeman and Peggy Wilkins-Chavis — helped by a high-powered lawyer, wiggled off the hook and won’t have to prove to a judge that they didn’t violate the state’s opening meetings law in their firing of Superintendent Tommy Lowry and the aborted hiring of Thomas Graves. They used as leverage a threat to expose the plaintiffs in the case, two minor children, to as much as $245,000 in damages, which signaled the retreat.
But make no mistake: These Six did violate the spirit of the law, and probably its letter.
The other five members of the board — Chairman Loistine Defreece, Mike Smith, Craig Lowry, Brenda Fairley-Ferebee and John Campbell — as well as the plaintiffs can argue the lawsuit stopped the hiring of Graves, and exposed the collusion of The Six. They also hinted that some members of the school board have not taken the necessarily training the state requires to serve on the board, which this newspaper will explore.
The losers are the rest of us, this county’s taxpayers who will be handed the bill for Lowry’s buyout and other expenses associated with this fiasco, as well as the parents and the children who depend on the public schools for an education.
The last time our school board embarrassed itself to this extent was in the summer of 2015 when $20,000 was spent on a search, the best candidate was identified and offered, and then a fraction of the board attacked the candidate publicly, prompting his withdrawal. A split board then voted to hire Lowry even though he had not applied. Three of the six who orchestrated that were defeated in the following school board election.
We can only hope that voters remember the last three weeks when they darken the ballots during the 2018 school board election.
These kind of public feuds are debilitating, causing damage that is difficult to measure, especially with the recruitment of professionals and industry to the area. We doubt that Sanderson Farms would have picked Robeson County when the company was making that decision if our school board had been in the midst of a public food fight. Consider as well how much more difficult it is to recruit quality teachers when they know that they would work for a system managed by this dysfunctional bunch.
Our forecast is that this fiasco will only give way to another, because what remains is the hiring of a superintendent. The best bet is that The Six will try again to hire Graves, who might be what is needed but has been damaged during this mess, and that the board will again splinter during the hiring.
It would be refreshing to see the board add some bricks to the concensus that was achieved on Thursday night and do the right thing by conducting a legitimate search that is colorblind, sturdy to the political winds, and delivers a person who can get our system out of its rut.
Sadly, there is no one who believes it will happen — and we include the 11 on the school board.