LUMBERTON — The Public Schools of Robeson County’s Board of Education violated its own policy when members voted to hire a superintendent without advertising for the position, and at least one board member says he knew that but doesn’t care.
“They break policies all the time,” Dwayne Smith said. “If they want us to post the position, we will. Then on Feb. 1, we will come back with the same man. We are going to move this school district forward no matter what.”
Smith said it is common for school board members to break policy, an attitude that may be at loggerheads with the man he and five other members want as superintendent. Thomas Graves is known a disciplinarian and a stickler for enforcing school rules and policy.
During its regular meeting on Tuesday, the board voted 6-5 to buy out the contract of Superintendent Tommy Lowry and replace him with Graves, a much-traveled school administrator with a reputation for enforcing discipline, responsibility and hard work practices.
Smith, Randy Lawson, Brian Freeman, Steve Martin, Peggy Chavis-Wilkins, Charles Bullard voted to fire Lowry and hire Graves, while Mike Smith, Loistine Defreece, Craig Lowry and Brenda Fairley Ferebee voted against. John Campbell did not attend the meeting.
The action came as an ambush, with four board members saying they knew nothing about what was happening.
While the actions of the school board were legal, they violated the spirit of open-meeting laws, said Amanda Martin, North Carolina Press Association general counsel.
“These laws are designed to give the public the ability to follow along,” Martin said.
North Carolina law allows the board to take any action at a regular meeting and does not require that positions such as superintendent be advertised in advance. However, the personnel policy of the Public Schools of Robeson County is clear on advance publication of vacancies.
“Notice of each vacancy must be posted for at least 10 work days prior to filling the position, unless an emergency condition exists,” the policy manual states. “All vacancies must be adequately publicized within the school system so that employees will be informed of opportunities for promotion or transfer to new jobs. Vacancies also shall be publicized externally to attract qualified applicants.”
Dwayne Smith said he was very much aware of the policy.
“But what do you call an emergency? Depends how you look at it,” he said. “Just remember a policy is a policy and an emergency is an emergency.”
Freeman, a new board member and an educator in Cumberland County, voted to oust Lowry and to hire Graves. The board plans to allow Graves to finish Lowry’s contract, which runs through June 2018. The school system will owe Lowry at least $180,000, a year’s pay, and perhaps more.
“I do believe it was the right thing to do …,” Freeman said, adding the short-term contract for Graves will allow for him to be evaluated to see if it will be extended past June 2018.
Freeman said schools Attorney Grady Hunt did not tell the board it was in violation.
Hunt said he did not know the six board members were conducting their own search for a superintendent and had not been providing the group legal advice. He said he was as much in the dark as everyone else when the motion was made to buy out Lowry’s contract and hire a new superintendent.
“I was clueless,” he said.
Hunt said that he did not look at the local policy regulating the hiring of employees.
“Looking back on things now, I should have taken a look at that policy,” he said.
The policy lays out a five-point plan to ensure vacancies are “adequately publicized,” both internally and externally in North Carolina and to ensure “extensive distribution of certified personnel vacancy announcements to other states.”
The pace at which Graves was announced as the only candidate surprised many and worried others.
“I think any time things move that quickly, that fast, it needs to be looked at a little more,” school board member Mike Smith said Thursday.
Smith voted against the appointment of Graves.
Smith said there are board members working to stop Graves’ appointment, but he did not go into detail.
“I don’t think anybody wants to show their cards,” he said.
Freeman said the effort to remove Lowry, who was only 18 months into his tenure, had been simmering.
“People discussed that 11 months ago when I was running,” Freeman said.
He said he has not met or talked to Graves, and his information on the man comes from “word of mouth” and
via Internet searches.
The person who brought Graves to the attention of Robeson County was Ben Chavis, an educator and vocal critic of the local school system and its leadership. He went as far as to call Lowry a “loser,” and at a meeting of the St. Pauls Board of Commissioners on Thursday blasted Lumbees for ruining the school system.
Chavis said he met Graves in October and saw what he had done to improve schools in New Mexico.
“This guy is fantastic,” said Chavis, who is of Lumbee descent. “He can get the things done here in Robeson County that will improve our schools … . He has said that if he can’t improve the schools we can fire him.”
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or on Twitter @MikeGellatly.
Reach Bob Shiles at 910-416-5165.