LUMBERTON — An online petition asking the North Carolina Board of Education to investigate the conduct of the Public Schools of Robeson County’s Board of Education has garnered nearly 400 signatures.
The petition, posted on change.org, was started by Alan McDaniel on Aug. 8 and on Friday afternoon had been signed by 380 people who agree “citizens and taxpayers urgently need the State Board of Education to step in.”
“They have hired a superintendent that has not even applied properly for the job, moved principals without grounds, moved a principal because of racism back to the same position only in another school … and [have] continued unfair, unequal treatment of the students. Board members … violated their own policies and want people hired based on race first,” the petition says.
The petition, which has a goal of 500 signatures, was posted following the school board’s decision to name a longtime employee, Tommy Lowry, superintendent after the board had spent five months and more than $16,000 to find a replacement for Johnny Hunt, who retired after nine years as superintendent. The position had originally been offered to Rick Watkins, an educator from Hamlet, but Watkins rescinded his candidacy after the board discussed his credentials in open session with one member saying an interview he gave to The Robesonian was “illegal.”
The recent transfers of several principals also angered residents, many of whom mobilized in defense of Principal Charles Locklear and started a separate petition to keep him at Fairgrove Middle School. Locklear has since taken an assistant principal position at Red Springs Middle School.
“Someone needs to hold these people accountable. They obviously don’t hold themselves accountable to the voting public. ‘Political Correctness’ has got to stop — just do what’s right,” one petitioner wrote.
Severeo Kerns, who served on the school board for 12 years, agrees board member’s decisions are often political.
“They don’t vote based on their convictions, they vote based on what’s gong to be best for them when it comes to elections,” Kerns said.
“Go along to get along” was the mantra during those 12 years, said Kerns, who recently sent The Robesonian a letter to the editor that was critical of the board.
“You go into closed session, you go back there and argue … and everybody comes out smiling like they agreed on it,” he said.
Kerns said he was hoping that North Carolina School Boards Association’s involvement in the superintendent selection process would “take the politics out.” He says Lowry, who has worked with the school system for more than 30 years, is qualified to hold the position, but the process through which he was chosen was “not appropriate” because Lowry did not apply for the job.
“Instead of selecting people they are anointing people now,” Kerns said.
School board members who voted in favor of hiring Lowry tout his experience with the school system and say it would have been unfair to staff and students to prolong the superintendent search. Board members who voted to re-open the search process say that the procedure agreed upon by the board should have been finished, and that residents favored an out-of-county pick. Board members on both sides of the issue say it’s time to move on and support the superintendent they hired.
The superintendent selection process has prompted some residents to call for changes on the school board, or even to unofficially throw their hats into the ring for the next election in May, when seven board members are up for re-election.
“I think it’s time for a change,” Kerns said. “The longer you’re doing something the more insensitive you become to the problem. If the county really wants an improvement, this would be the perfect time for the voters to get out and do it.”
The state Board of Education recently took partial control of the Halifax County public school system, citing poor policy and financial decisions. The board now has approval over the all budgets and hires for the district.