LUMBERTON — When it comes to hiring employees in the Public Schools of Robeson County, race can trump qualifications, according to some members of the Board of Education.
That issue was raised Tuesday night when longtime school board member John Campbell, who is black, accused fellow board members of making hiring decisions based entirely on race.
“I’ve been a board member for 26 years and at my first board meeting hiring by race was an issue,” said Mike Smith, a white board member. “It’s not my desire that this be an issue, but it is an issue now, it’s been an issue in the past, and it will be an issue in the future.”
Campbell told school board members that he hopes a denied applicant for a temporary principal’s position sues the school system. He said that would be his advice to the applicant.
“Sometimes it takes having to go through judicial lawsuits to make sure that individual rights are protected,” Campbell told The Robesonian. “I think it remains a possibility that unless reconsideration of hiring this individual, who was the first choice of the superintendent, we are going to end up in litigation.”
Campbell said that white members of the board joined together and voted to deny the temporary principal’s job at Rowland Norment Elementary School to a qualified candidate who is not white. He said the coalition of the five white board members and two American Indian board members, Peggy Wilkins-Chavis and Charles Bullard, voted for Lowry’s second recommendation for principal, Shawn Feeko, who is white.
The current principal, Laura Owens Diff, who is white, is taking personal leave. According to Lowry, Diff is expected to eventually return to her position.
“This coalition acts based on prejudice, bigotry and discrimination,” Campbell said. “To them it is all about race and not qualifications.”
Board members Dwayne Smith and Steve Martin, both white, said it is standard in Robeson County for the outgoing employee to be replaced by a person of the same race, which they said was a nod to Robeson County’s tri-racial population.
The board members emphasized, however, that although race is important for maintaining racial equality, qualifications of an applicant are the No. 1 criterion considered in filling any job position.
“Every time they don’t get what they want, it’s called racism,” Dwayne Smith said. “When they do the same thing
to get their people hired, it’s called diversity.”
Mike Smith said that it’s “absolutely untrue” that board members consider just race and not qualifications when employees are hired. He said, however, that race takes on more significance when applicants for a position have similar qualifications.
Campbell ruffled the feathers of white board members when he said publicly at the close of Tuesday’s meeting that one board member during a closed session stated that he would not vote for anyone who is not black.
“It appears John is putting a spin on something that was said during a closed session,” said Martin. “No board member said during the closed session that they would not vote for any blacks.”
Martin, a longtime board member, cited the number of job applicants approved Tuesday by race. These individuals included favorable votes by the board’s five white members and two of the board’s three American Indian members.
According to Martin, five Hispanics, 19 whites, 46 American Indians and 26 blacks were approved for jobs on Tuesday.
Voting with Campbell against the hiring of the white principal was board Chairman Loistine DeFreece and Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, both of whom are black, and Craig Lowry, an American Indian.
Superintendent Tommy Lowry declined to comment Friday on questions about school hiring policy submitted by The Robesonian. Attempts by The Robesonian to reach other school board members for comment failed.
During Tuesday’s meeting, DeFreece called the process by which the principal was hired the “worst” thing she had ever seen in her 20 years on the board.
“When we talk about school improvements and then don’t look at qualifications and recommend someone just because of their race, that’s wrong,” she said. “I’m passionate about this … . If it takes the court system to come here to make sure people are treated treated fairly, that’s what will have to happen.”
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.