School board 6 hire lawyer, demand $245,000

Special meeting of board tonight at COMtech

By Mike Gellatly -

Steve Martin

LUMBERTON — The six school board members accused of violating their own policy when they attempted to hire a superintendent are demanding a minimum of $245,000 in damages from the families that filed a lawsuit attempting to stop the action their attorneys say was illegal.

Included in a motion to dissolve the temporary restraining order currently in place over the Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education, the six members say it was granted unlawfully, they were harmed by it and they demand financial damages.

Charles Bullard, Brian Freeman, Randy Lawson, Steve Martin, Dwayne Smith and Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, who all voted Jan. 10 to buy out Superintendent Tommy Lowry’s contract and hire Virginia-based educator Thomas Graves, have hired Fayetteville attorney Neil Yarborough to represent them individually. Board attorney Grady Hunt is representing them in their capacity as elected board members.

The school board has called for a special meeting tonight at the system’s temporary headquarters at COMtech during which the board is expected to consult with both lawyers. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at 115 Livermore Drive, just outside of Pembroke.

Yarborough has asked for a hearing on the validity of the restraining order, which is scheduled for Monday. He contends the six members of the board acted within the scope of their office and that the firing of Lowry and hiring of Graves were legitimate actions. He also argues that even if school board members violated their own policy by not advertising the superintendent’s job, it carries no legal weight because such policies are “aspirational” and “serve as a guide.”

“Internal board personnel policy, unless enacted by an ordinance, does not create a contract with a terminated employee,” the motion to dissolve the restraining order states. “The board policies alleged to have been violated … has no direct, immediate or irreparable bearing on the two elementary school students who are named as the plaintiffs in this matter.”

The board last week rescinded its offer to Graves, doing so on a motion made by Bullard, which was approved unanimously. The board then voted to extend the term of interim Superintendent Shanita Wooten.

Included in the filings from Yarborough’s office is an affidavit provided by board member Martin. The 16-year veteran of the board said that at the Jan. 10 meeting Lowry and Graves’ qualifications were discussed in closed session. In that session straw polls were conducted on the firing of Lowry and hiring of Graves, according to the document.

Martin denies there was any collusion between board members as a group before the meeting during which Graves was picked. He did say that it is normal for school board members to communicate regarding matters in front of the board.

“I did so with some of my colleagues in this matter, but it was always on an individual basis not as part of any meeting involving a majority or near majority of the Board of Education,” Martin’s affidavit reads in part.

The document closes with Martin saying the school board voted to rescind the job offer to Graves as a direct result of the temporary restraining order being granted. Th

Bullard gave another reason at the meeting during which the offer was withdrawn.

“We were going to rescind it anyway because it was illegal and I did not want to be a part of anything illegal,” Bullard said about the hiring of Graves.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the school board and the six individual board members have asked for documents such as phone records, emails and any other correspondence that they believe will demonstrate the state’s open meetings law was violated.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Gary Locklear, a former Superior Court judge, Joshua Malcolm, and Tiffany Powers, who all are offering their services for free.

Steve Martin Martin
Special meeting of board tonight at COMtech

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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