LUMBERTON — Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, a member of the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County since 1996, has had enough.
The school board’s infighting and its failure to find a new superintendent has the long-time board member questioning whether she will seek re-election next year to her District 3 seat.
“We have done a disservice to our county,” she told The Robesonian.
Since the Jan. 10 firing of Tommy Lowry as superintendent, the school board has been searching for the next person to lead the school system. But internal bickering, claims of racial bias and posturing have seen the top choices for the post move past Robeson County.
“It’s time for a change. You cannot run for school board with one agenda — to get rid of a superintendent,” Fairley-Ferebee said. “I don’t trust my board colleagues, they say one thing and turn around and do another. I’m tired of the nonsense that’s taking place. Board business needs to be conducted in a professional manner. When you do to one superintendent what has been done to Tommy Lowry, what superintendent would come?”
Fairley-Ferebee is looking to put her stipend of about $8,000 a year where her mouth is. She is willing to concede that the whole board has been dysfunctional and she is planning to take herself out of running when her term is up next year.
“And I mean we, not just ‘The Six.’ Not ‘The Five,’ all of us,” she said. “I won’t be running for the school board again. If someone can serve better than I can, I will not run. I would love to (continue to serve), but it’s hard, people are hurting staff.”
In addition of Fairley-Ferebee, the seats of Peggy Wilkins-Chavis in District 2, Mike Smith in District 6 and Dwayne Smith in District 8 are up for election in the May primary. During the 2016 primary, three of seven members were denied re-election.
That came after the summer of 2015 when the board failed to hire its first choice, with an offer to Wingate educator Rick Watkins falling through when some board members criticized him publicly before he had signed a contract.
Fairley-Ferebee believes the uncertainty in leadership and divisive actions of the school board have hurt central office administrators, principals, teachers and support staff in a system that is considered one of the worst in North Carolina by most education metrics.
She believes getting a superintendent into office is critical, whether that person is from the now-shorter list of candidates already in hand, a retired superintendent with experience, or someone new, such as interim Superintendent Shanita Wooten.
“She’s good at what she does, that’s just my personal and professional opinion. But even if we keep her, she needs help,” Fairly-Ferebee said.
The board apparently dwindled a list of about 21 candidates deemed “qualified” to three or four, but those finalists are no longer seem in play. The board split with one member, John Campbell, publicly accusing six members, Dwayne Smith, Steve Martin, Brian Freeman, Wilkins-Chavis, Charles Bullard and Randy Lawson of refusing to hire the most qualified candidate because he is black.
After the board’s most recent meeting, board attorney Grady Hunt read a statement saying it would “regroup,” though it’s unclear what that means.
“I have no idea. We just put everything on hold,” Dwayne Smith said. “We are in the same boat as we were when we started with this.”
It’s unclear if the board will try to find a superintendent from its existing list of candidates, or readvertise the position. The clock is not in its favor as the start of the school year is a few weeks away.
“It could be a completely new pool. The search is not over, we will continue with it,” Craig Lowry said.
In January, Smith, Freeman, Wilkins-Chavis, Lawson, Bullard and Martin voted Tommy Lowry out and tried but failed to hire a Virginia educator.
Those six have controled the board since, including in the election of Wilkins-Chavis as chairman and Freeman as vice chairman.
The cost for Schafer’s team to search for candidates starts at $17,500 and additional expenses, including background checks, are added as they are incurred.
“Ms. Schafer is still working with us and continuing the search,” Craig Lowry said.
Schafer said her team was still very much involved.
“We are there until the candidate is selected,” Schafer said.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly