LUMBERTON — A local representative on the state Board of Education says members of a divided local school board need to refocus their attention and remember their primary mission, which is to improve a school system that ranks among the worst in North Carolina for student achievement.
Olivia Oxendine, a Lumberton resident, was contacted by The Robesonian about the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County, which has been split at 6-5 first in firing a superintendent and now seems deadlocked in an attempt to hire one.
Oxendine believes board members need to do some learning.
“Forgetting politics and focusing on personal development is the key to improving local education and splitting divisions in the local school board,” she said.
It may sound obvious, Oxendine said, but that is the best way to get the county’s public schools out from under the stigma of being a low-performing district. The local system ranks near the bottom of about every educational metric in the state, except its graduation rate.
Oxendine holds a doctorate in education and teaches master’s candidates at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She has 46 years of experience as a public school teacher and administrator.
“The role of the local board is very simple, not simplistic, but simple,” Oxendine said. “That is to figure out what it is going to take to reduce, rid the number of low-performing schools. That is the primary, the only job facing the board of education. The job is essentially one of removing the low-performing status that Robeson County has carried for quite a while. Everything else needs to be set aside.”
Oxendine stressed her opinions are her own and not those of the state board.
“Set aside politics or utilize politics in a positive way, to work together to eliminate the low-performing stigma that is affecting the students in our community,” Oxendine said. “One way is each member comes to understand as much as they possibly … can about education policy, curriculum policy, teaching policy, hiring the best teachers and principals.”
To her point, Oxendine praised Peggy Wilkins-Chavis and comments she made after being elected chairman.
“I was at the board meeting Monday night. I listened to Chavis’ comments. She talked about things that were so pertinent,” Oxendine said. “That is rich stuff, and will really help getting to the core of eliminating low achievement. If the chair spent one hour per meeting talking about (pertinent topics) and have topnotch people come before the board to talk. The rest of the board may think ‘Gee, this is pretty important and we need to put our energy into that.’ Like that, there can be a shift from nonproductive to very important.’”
After being elected to the chairman in a 6-5 vote, Wilkins-Chavis outlined specific goals and topics she wants to focus on during her tenure. She spoke of improving test scores, getting textbooks into students’ hands and bringing back cursive writing requirements.
“The Robeson County Board of Education has a new chair, and as individual board members, like it or not, she is the chair. Set aside your emotions, your preferences. Agree to disagree,” Oxendine said. “Think of students each time you spend time on disagreements. In that moment, is there a student in Robeson County that could be reading at a higher level or doing math at a higher level? That is all that matters.”
Wilkins-Chavis was elected on Monday, two days after a board member, John Campbell, used Facebook to tell people that six members of the board were refusing to hire the best candidate for superintendent among the finalists because that person is black.
The noise has made its way to Raleigh.
“… It is my hope that the board can come together and work their differences out,” said Rep. Charles Graham, a longtime educator. “And we are all concerned, we want our children to have good, sound education leadership from the superintendent on down to the central office.”
Graham believes the best course of action is for board members to talk privately.
“Sounds like to me that there has been a definite split on the board, my hope is they can come to agreement. Not necessarily in the public, but work together in their closed sessions and bring a united front. Folks in the central office are working hard to make sure we have a good start to the school year. Trying to make sure all the personnel issues are taken care of — I’m sure the administration is doing all they can do to make sure we have a good opening to the school year.”
Shanita Wooten has worked as the interim superintendent since Tommy Lowry was fired in a 6-5 vote on Jan. 10.
The board issued a statement last week saying it was planning to regroup in the superintendent’s search.
At the board’s meeting on Monday, former Superior Court Judge Gary Locklear questioned whether anyone who is capable would want to work for the local school board.
Oxendine sees the challenge for a new leader differently.
“What an opportunity this next superintendent has,” Oxendine said. “The richest of opportunities is to really do something meaningful. They will not have easy days and restful nights, but the experience will be so rewarding.”
The Robesonian has been called repeatedly by concerned residents asking if the board members can be recalled, or if the state can take over the system.
“No. 1, no county, no local school board wants to be taken over,” Oxendine said. “In some regards, it looks as though the citizens, the commissioners, the voters, it looks like they have given up on these kids. No one wants to go down that path.”
There was talk in January of recalling the county school board members when Lowry was fired without warning and an attempt was made to hire a candidate without advertising the position. A group calling itself Concerned Citizens of Robeson County gathered more than 200 signatures on a petition that was mailed to all of Robeson County’s representatives in the General Assembly.
Recalling the county school board would require the General Assembly to pass special legislation. The legislation would list corrective actions and detail the state Board of Education’s role.
In August 2015 more than 500 people signed an online petition requesting the state education board investigate the Robeson County board after Lowry was hired without applying for the job.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly