LUMBERTON — While school board members are confident in Tommy Lowry’s ability to serve as superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County, some say time and money was wasted by not finishing the candidate search process the board began five months ago.
Lowry was offered a three-year contract on Thursday after the Board of Education announced that Rick Watkins, who was offered the job last month, had withdrawn his candidacy. Five board members voted in favor of giving Lowry the job, while four supported a motion to reopen the North Carolina School Boards Association’s search for a candidate to replace Johnny Hunt, who retired on July 1.
“… We did something halfway and basically threw the $20,000 out the window and I want taxpayers to know I had nothing to do with it,” said board member Steve Martin, who put forth the motion to continue the superintendent search.
Martin said the board should have stuck to the process it agreed to when it hired the School Boards Association to advertise for the position and review applications.
“I know Mr. Lowry and he’s a good man, I have no problems with him as superintendent, I was just under the impression that he didn’t apply because he didn’t want the job. Had we known he wanted the job from the beginning, we could have possibly saved $20,000 and all that time,” Martin said.
Martin said after he learned Watkins was withdrawing his candidacy, he contacted the School Boards Association, which said it would finish the process it started in March.
“They said ‘you’ve already approved this agreement, we will see it through’,” Martin said.
Board member Randy Lawson says choosing someone from Robeson County disregarded the wishes of residents and school staff alike who thought the next superintendent should not be local. He referred to questionnaires sent out by the Schools Boards Association to the community and school employees.
“It was overwhelmingly that they wanted somebody from outside the county to be superintendent … . The ones who supported it turned a blind eye,” said Lawson, who offered a second to Martin’s motion.
Lawson also touted Lowry’s dedication to the school system, but said that giving the position to someone who did not apply was not “the right thing to do for PSRC or for the students.” With an interim superintendent in place, there’s no reason, Lawson said, that a renewed search couldn’t have been conducted.
“He should have had to go through the process like everybody else. I’m not saying he’s not qualified, the issue is that he never applied for the position,” Lawson said.
Board Chairman Mike Smith disagreed that the search went to waste. Smith did not vote on Lowry’s appointment, but broke a tie vote in Watkins’ favor on July 28.
“I consider him a friend and I think he will do an excellent job. I don’t have any qualms about his qualifications … It may be unfortunate how things turned out, but if you take Dr. Watkins out of the picture, you’re back to square one,” Smith said.
He said “in a perfect world” Lowry would have applied initially, but that “no one has a crystal ball” to show the board how the search process was going to turn out.
“… Even before we went through the process, to save time and money we could have hired somebody here from the get-go — if that had been the wish of the majority of the board,” Smith said.
Board member Bosco Locklear, who originally supported Watkins, and voted in Lowry’s favor on Thursday, said that with school starting soon, the board needed to make a prompt decision on a superintendent.
“You’re looking at another four months before you hire someone while Mr. Lowry was working as interim … I just couldn’t see him holding out another four months doing both positions and I think he’ll do a great job as superintendent,” Locklear said.
Lowry has worked for the Public Schools of Robeson County for more than 38 years. He has served at interim superintendent multiple times and has served as the assistant superintendent of Instruction and Support since 2007.
Messages left by a reporter on Friday for Gary Strickland, John Campbell, Brenda Fairley-Ferebee and Loistine DeFreece, who voted to offer Lowry the contract, were not returned in time for this story.
The superintendent selection has sparked debate throughout Robeson County, much of it taking place online. A story reporting Lowry’s appointment on robesonian.com had accumulated 66 comments within its first 28 hours online. Many comments are critical of the selection process, with some lauding Lowry’s qualifications and others lamenting Watkins’ departure.
“We’ve got to move on from this and support the superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County at this time — Mr. Tommy Lowry,” Lawson said.