LUMBERTON — The Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County removed interim from Superintendent Shanita Wooten’s title on Tuesday.
The 8-3 vote was cast after a 90-minute closed-door session, and the board extended Wooten’s contract to June 30, 2021, and maintained her salary at $180,000 a year.
Dissenting votes were cast by Loistene DeFreece, Brenda Fairley-Ferebee and Craig Lowry. Voting yes were Charles Bullard, John Campbell, board Chairperson Peggy Wilkins Chavis, Brian Freeman, Randy Lawson, Steve Martin, Dwayne Smith and Mike Smith.
Dwayne Smith made the motion and noted that the board was advised by the North Carolina School Boards Association that upgrading the superintendent’s status did not require the position to be advertised or an official search conducted.
Lowry and DeFreece were conciliatory afterward, saying the prefered a search.
“I am not voting against Dr. Wooten,” DeFreece said. “I wanted to go through the full hiring process.”
“I will support Dr. Wooten,” Lowry said. “I believe we should have gone through the hiring process.”
Freeman, who was outspoken earlier in the meeting about differences on the board, praised Wooten’s work.
“There is no process required, according to the state School Boards Association,” Freeman said. “We have had the rare opportunity to interview Dr. Wooten for the superintendent’s position for the past 14 months, and she has proven capable.
“I look forward to all the exciting things she will do for the Public Schools of Robeson County over the next three years.”
Chairperson Chavis also praised Wooten’s work.
“I want to thank Dr. Wooten for her leadership,” Chavis said. “We have been through lots of troubles after Hurricane Matthew, and I’m looking forward to a new beginning.”
In open session, a divided school board was vividly on display after two failed superintendent searches and the firing of Superintendent Tommy Lowry in January 2017.
Tanya Giovanni, representing the North Carolina School Boards Association, met with board members in open and closed sessions. She offered three paths to hiring a permanent superintendent, including promoting Wooten.
With an election coming up, board attorney Grady Hunt advised board members that the only time they could not hire a superintendent would be between the election and the swearing in of newly elected members.
“The reason this board is very reluctant is that members sabotaged the last two superintendent searches,” Freeman said. “Having a search today would be — fake news.”
Fairley-Ferebee agreed the board “messed up.”
John Campbell said it’s “evident that this board still has a lot of work to do.”
“We hired Dr. Wooten because we felt as a board we were too divided,” Campbell said.
Dwayne Smith spoke out against unnamed board members “sitting up in the superintendent’s office telling them what to do and not letting them do their jobs.”
“Is there anyone in their right mind who would come here and work in this?” Smith said. “We’re playing games with the lives of our kids. It’s about the kids.”
Craig Lowry noted that the board voted 11-0 to promote Wooten to interim superintendent but the agreement was that there would be a search, and that Wooten may apply.
After the verbal exchanges, Chavis asked members to continue the conversation behind closed doors.
Despite strong sentiment to restructure the school calendar so that first-semester high school students can take exams before the Christmas break next year, board members voted 9-2 to continue with its current schedule.
The 2018-19 school year will begin on Aug. 27 and end on June 11, the board decided. To accommodate taking exams before the holiday, the first semester would be 80 schools days and the second semester would be 96 days, according to Bobby Locklear, executive director of curriculum, instruction and accountability.
Locklear polled high school teachers, and two-thirds voted for the flexible schedule with exams before the holiday. Two of the six high schools were opposed to the flexible schedule.
Fairley-Ferebee asked if there were state waivers available to start school earlier in August or if the school day could be lengthened in the first semester.
“State law does not allow a waiver that I am aware of,” Locklear said.
Regarding a longer school day, he said “questions were raised about conflicts with athletics and other after-school activities and jobs.”
“What we are doing taking exams after Christmas is not working,” Dwayne Smith said. “Why not give this a chance?”
Lowry, a former teacher, said he was concerned about the loss of instructional time in the first semester with the flexible schedule.
With high school registration approaching for next year, Locklear said action is needed before April. Smith and Fairley-Ferebee voted against the motion for a flexible schedule.
Locklear remained at the podium to answer questions raised in February about providing transportation and lunch at summer remediation programs. He said it would cost more than $400,000 to transport students, and there would be unbudgeted losses in the food service programs as well.
Students participating in summer school get an abbreviated breakfast and a snack, Locklear said.
The board took no action on either issue.
The school board voted 10-1 to pay $30,000 to the North Carolina School Board Association for a complete rewrite of its board policy manual.
Fairley-Ferebee, who was the lone no vote, argued that the schools already had paid for policy updates beginning in 2010. Superintendent Wooten said a complete rewrite was needed because policy updates were not uploaded to the website.
“The bottom line is the ball got dropped,” Mike Smith said. “Who was responsible for updating the website?”
Wooten said the superintendent is responsible for ensuring that updates are made, but she did not know who was responsible under prior administrations.
“Embarrassing,” Freeman said. “I hope those in the audience tonight will hold us accountable in the future.”
Accountant Buddy McLean, of S. Preston Douglas and Associates, presented the school board with a clean audit and praised the system’s accounting staff.
“There are no problems and no major findings,” McLean said. “I am later than usual with the audit report because Hurricane Matthew arrived in the middle of the year.
“Payroll, food services, human resources and accounts payable did an outstanding job to get you through this mess.”
Food service lost $1.5 million for three weeks of meals not served and the general fund lost just $144,000.
“That’s incredible considering what you went through,” he said. “Not in this report is a damage report for buildings.
“I estimated a loss of $100 million, and I learned the number is $96 million. Hopefully, you will get $50 to 60 million from FEMA and insurance, but $20 million is more likely.
“I have been in this business for 40 years, and I have never been so proud of a staff as I am with this group.”
McLean singled out Erica Setzer, PSRC’s finance director, for her work, sparking applause from board members and people in the audience.
Setzer reported that the cost of resurfacing tracks at Lumberton and St. Pauls high schools is almost double the $200,000 budgeted in 2017-18.
School board members agreed with her recommendation to resurface one track in the current budget year and the second after July 1 in the 2018-19 budget year. Both are expected to be finished for the start of the next school year.
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org.