Board nixes buying out Harding

First Posted: 1/15/2009

LUMBERTON -- The Robeson County school board, in a 6-5 split vote, decided Monday night not to buy out the remainder of schools Superintendent Barry Harding's contract.
Chairman Mike Smith cast the deciding vote.
The other board members who voted against a buyout were: Robert Deese, Patrick Bullard, Bosco Locklear, John Campbell and Gloria Lowery. Board members Terry Smith, Millicent Nealy, James DeFreece, Steve Martin and Brenda Fairley voted for a buyout.
Some board members who voted against the buyout argued that newly elected board member Severeo Kerns should have a say in the decision. Kerns was elected to the board in September and will be sworn into office Dec. 9.
In other business, the board unanimously voted to table a decision to make public notes from a closed session detailing conversations the board had about Associate Superintendent Bruce Walters' contract.
Harding contract
The board voted in April not to extend Harding's contract, which expires June 30, 2003. Terry Smith made the motion to buy out the contract following an 80-minute meeting in closed session. DeFreece seconded the motion.
Campbell and Bullard said Kerns' input is needed in the decision.
“In the next 60 days, the new board member will be seated,” Bullard said. “I respect his right to have a say in this issue. He will have to live with it a lot longer than his predecessor.”
Lowery, whom Kerns defeated in the September election, said buying out Harding's contract would be a “shameful waste of money” and should not be made because of “personality conflicts.”
“We are talking about spending money that should be earmarked for children,” Lowery said. “We have a superintendent who has a proven record of moving the county forward.”
After the meeting, Kerns said that he supports the current board making the decision.
“It would have been fine with me,” he said.
Kerns declined to say whether or not he would vote to buy out Harding's contract.
Private talk
The board spoke briefly about opening closed-session minutes to the public that would reveal discussions the board had concerning Associate Superintendent Bruce Walter's contract. The executive sessions were held June 24, July 11 and July 22.
This issue arose from comments Walters made in a guest editorial that was published in The Robesonian Oct. 9.
He wrote that he was treated poorly by white school board members who he said formed a “majority” on the board and who he said delayed his request to retire and be hired on a contractual basis, which allows him to be paid and draw retirement at the same time. He now works under that 30-plus initiative. Walters said that the delay cost him thousands of dollars. The column doesn't list any board members by name.
Walters, who is white, wrote that he was being punished because of his “hard-core allegiance to a Native American superintendent.” Harding is Lumbee Indian.
Terry Smith said the minutes should be made public to protect the integrity of the board.
Smith has previously stated that the board was following proper procedure in handling Walters’ request. State law requires that an employee retire first and says the decision to retire does not guarantee re-employment.
Bullard and Deese said that if the board decides to make those minutes public, other closed-session minutes in the past and future should also be open to the public.
“I can go back and start digging into some old closed-session minutes and I can start taking the hard facts to folks that approach me with what I consider to be an untruth,” Bullard said.
“To those three board members, I share your frustration -- when you feel like you have been unfairly singled out and being accused on a scape goat on a particular issue.”
Bullard said that he sympathizes with the three board members because he has “been lied to countless times.”
“Every time I hit the streets of Pembroke, I am faced with one lie after the next that have either been circulated from one source to another and I have to embrace and deal with it. It is going to be my word against the perpetrator's word,” Bullard said.
After the discussion, Smith made a motion to table the issue until the board attorney, Grady Hunt, receives a written opinion from Bob Joyce, a professor of public law and government at the North Carolina Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill.
In other business, the board:
-- Learned that school administrators have been invited to present some of the school system's successful programs at the National Indian Education Conference in Albuquerque, N.M. Nov. 3-6.
-- Learned that there have been 3,758 responses from surveys for community input on the characteristics that a superintendent should have.
The school system began distributing about 40,000 surveys on Oct. 3. They have been sent home with students and are available at school media centers. The surveys are due back this month.