LUMBERTON — A longtime member of the Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education lashed out at fellow board members Tuesday, accusing them of making hiring decisions entirely based on race.
John Campbell, who is black, then said he hopes a denied applicant sues the school system.
Campbell accused white members of the school board of joining together and voting down Superintendent Tommy Lowry’s first choice for the principal’s job at the Rowland Norment Elementary because the individual is not white. The board than voted 7 to 4 in favor of Lowry’s second recommendation, who is white.
Board members Steve Martin, Randy Lawson, Dwayne Smith, Charles Bullard, Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, Brian Freeman Mike Smith voted in favor, and Campbell, Chairman Loistine DeFreece, Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, all of whom are black, and Craig Lowry, voted against.
According to Lowry, Shawn Feeko, an assistant principal at Lumberton Senior High School, will replace Rowland Norment Principal Laura Owens Diff. Diff is taking personal leave, Lowry said, and will be returning to her job at an unspecified date.
Board members would not give the name of the candidate not chosen for the position. Grady Hunt, the board’s attorney, called the hiring a “personnel” issue.
Campbell charged the white board members with trying to exclude a minority member from the principal’s position.
“This had nothing to do with qualifications. It was only based on race,” Campbell said. “There is one member on this board who says he won’t vote for anyone that’s not white. That’s discrimination and I am personally going to recommend to the person not hired that they file a lawsuit against this board.”
Chairman DeFreece jumped into the fray, calling the process by which the principal was hired the “worst” thing she had ever seen in her 20 years on the board. She rose from her seat, saying she had to stand and protest the action.
“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 in here to make sure people are treated fairly, that’s what will have to happen.”
Craig Lowry, a longtime Robeson schools employee who joined the board in July, said he was “appalled with what happened” in the closed session in which the hiring was discussed. He said it was a clear case of the school board members micromanaging administrators.
“We have the superintendent and principals who do the interviews and make recommendations,” Lowry said. “Why don’t we just let them do it?”
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Freeman, who joined the board in July, made it clear he wasn’t impressed annual state testing results and school performance grades for the 2015-2016 school year that were recently received from the state. The results showed slight improvements in Robeson.
“It’s terrible. Our students are dying,” Freeman, a Cumberland County educator, said. “Only a third of our students are performing on grade level and that’s not good enough”
Bobby Locklear, who oversees testing programs for the school district, told the board that one of the bright spots in the past year is that the school district saw a 1.2 percent increase in the number of students who pass their End of Grade or End of Course tests.
“This is the first time we have seen an improvement in the past four years,” Locklear said.
According to an annual report released late last month by the state Department of Public Instruction, Robeson County schools received the following performance grades for 2015-16: one “A”; two “B’s”; seven “C’s”; 22 “D’s”; and nine “F’s”. The school performance grade is a cumulative grade that encompasses a school’s math and reading test scores while also assessing how much a school has grown and if it met expectations established for it before the school year began.
According to the report, although most Robeson schools received a “D,” 29 of the county’s 42 schools met or exceeded growth expectations.
Locklear told the board that the county’s graduation rate was 85.9 percent in 2016, slightly above the state average of 85.8 percent.
According to the DPI report, 35.1 percent of Robeson County students were proficient in math, 39.7 percent were proficient in biology and 37.9 percent were proficient in English. Statewide, proficiency in math was 60.5 percent while 55.5 percent of the state were proficient in biology and 58 percent were proficient in English.
Asked by board member Charles Bullard why Robeson County students perform significantly behind students in most other parts of the state on tests, Locklear said that research indicates students from more economically affluent areas do better on tests than those from economically challenged areas.
“If poor students are always going to get lower scores, we are in trouble,” Bullard said. “All around here are poor people.”
Superintendent Lowry told the board that it takes principals, teachers and students working together to bring about change and improvements that will boost overall school performance grades.
The board on Tuesday also:
— Decided to follow the lead of other nearby school districts and not allow sixth-grade students to participate this year in middle school sports. Board members voted to allow sixth-grade students to participate starting the next school year in all middle school sports except football.
— Approved proposed school fundraisers for the 2016-17 school.
— Recognized schools that met or exceeded their growth expectations for the year.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.