LUMBERTON — The Public Schools of Robeson County’s Board of Education has called a closed meeting on Thursday amid discussions of its appointment of a new superintendent.
The board will meet at central office at 9 a.m. to discuss personnel. The Robesonian has been told by mulitiple sources that the meeting will concern Rick Watkins, who was the board’s pick as the system’s next superintendent in a split vote on July 28.
During the July 28 meeting, board members discussed Watkins’ credentials in open session, including whether he had a valid educator’s license, before approving his appointment in a 6-5 vote, with Chairman Mike Smith breaking the tie. Watkins provided The Robesonian with his valid educator’s license, and the the N.C. Board of Education confirmed his qualifications.
According to David Ardia, a media law and freedom of speech expert with the UNC School of Law, that discussion should have happened in closed session if the board wanted to keep the conversation private, but that is at the boards discretion. Ardia says board members waived their right to deem such personnel information private when they decided to not go into closed session.
“The proper way of dealing with it should have been going into executive session and explaining why they were doing that,” Ardia said. ” … The state gives them tools to operate by and it doesn’t sound like they used those tools.”
Ardia said the open discussion was not illegal.
According to North Carolina General Statute 14-318.11, the board may call a closed session “to consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee.”
Board members also alleged that an interview Watkins gave to The Robesonian after he had been offered the superintendent position was “illegal.” Watkins spoke with a reporter for an article in the July 9 edition of the newspaper, saying he was “absolutely excited about this opportunity.” Watkins did not disclose any details of the contract he had been offered by the school system.
“There is nothing illegal about a state employee discussing their employment with the state. That’s not even improper let alone illegal,” Ardia said.
The Robesonian attempted to contact Watkins for this story, but was unable to reach him. In an email to The Robesonian last week, Watkins asked that his credentials be cleared up, and said he felt like his integrity had been questioned.
During the July 28 meeting, school board member John Campbell said Watkins held an expired educator’s license but said on his application for the job that his credentials were valid. The state Board of Education confirmed last week that it had provided the local board with an outdated license held by Watkins.
Watkins told The Robesonian he had provided the state board with both his current and previous educator’s license and said that any questions about his qualifications “could have been resolved long before an offer was made.”
Tommy Lowry, a former assistant superintendent, is holding the superintendent’s job on a interim basis. Campbell led an effort last week to drop interim from the label, but it failed. Lowry did not apply for the position that became vacant when Johnny Hunt retired on July 1 after nine years on the job.