School board gets lectured by local leaders

It is to the detriment of the rest of us that those who are best positioned to push our failing school system in a better direction seem most ignorant of the benefits of making that happen.

So perhaps the 11 members of the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County were listening on Tuesday night as they were lectured and reminded of the importance of their assignment, for which they have volunteered.

We have been frustrated by the unwillingness of key people in the community to raise their voice in protest, but that happened on Tuesday, and we hope the chorus continues to grow.

Kenneth Rust, a successful businessman who was speaking as chairman of the board of trustees for Southeastern Health, told school board members that their continuing dysfunction complicates efforts to bring in physicians and other health-care providers to one of the county’s larger private employers. Southeastern Health cannot be alone. We know a key administrator at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke left recently, and a reason given was the chance to get a child in a better school system.

The ripple expands from there, having a tsunami-like effect. The school system’s reputation even stymies efforts to recruit educators.

Also during the meeting on Tuesday Gary Locklear, a retired Superior Court judge, chastised the board on its decision to name five white men as committee chairmen, pointing out correctly that in no way does that represent the county’s demographic.

Board members sat silently, which would benefit many if they did that more often.

A couple of hours later, they emerged from a lengthy closed session and voted unanimously — yes, unanimously — to have Shanita Wooten continue as interim superintendent through the school year. We call the unanimous vote a good first step because the board has been stuck on 6-5 since Jan. 10, and while we don’t expect all board members to agree, a good idea is to disagree privately and join hands publicly.

We also realize that with the school year less than three weeks away and Allison Schafer, an attorney with the North Carolina School Boards Association, apparently unable to either deliver a superintendent candidate or one on which enough board members could all agree, that they might not have had much choice.

We wish Wooten the best — but her assignment is daunting, leading a struggling school system and working at the pleasure of a dysfunctional board.

We must note, however, that for the second time in two years that our school board has launched a superintendent’s search, paid the North Carolina School Boards Association well to assist in that effort, said all the right things during the process, and gone through it while publicly proclaiming they would hire the best candidate. In both instances, the search became a waste of time and money when the best candidates removed themselves from consideration because of the hissy fit of some board members who weren’t getting their way.

In 2015, the search ended with the hiring of Tommy Lowry, who was an assistant superintendent already in the system. He was doomed from Day One.

This time the search ended — suspended might be a better word — also at the central office, and Wooten will have the added burden of interim beside her name during what could become a year-long audition.

The good news is that the animosity that has been revealed during the search has a chance to go into hibernation.

We believe that Tuesday night could become a watershed moment in our school system’s history because we had leaders in this community step up and confront the school board on its antics. But it will become a game-changer only if other leaders in the community are willing to follow.