By Richard Sullins |

The Lee County GOP’s Executive Committee held a closed-door hearing Monday to consider its own charges that Board of Education Chair Sandra Bowen was guilty on four counts of what it termed “party disloyalty” and other conduct that it held to be in violation of its plan of organization.

At the close of the hearing, the committee voted that Bowen had violated three of the four provisions of the plan that were cited in a letter to her in November. Four sanctions could have been imposed by the Lee County GOP and it settled on two it considered the most significant.

First, the executive committee will officially censure her at a future meeting. Second, the county GOP will also not provide any support for her for the next three years, meaning should Bowen choose to run for re-election in 2024, the Lee County Republican Party will not be on her side.

The case against Bowen, and her response, can best be summarized in a single sentence: local GOP leadership believes that her first loyalty should be to the party, while Bowen maintains that her allegiance belongs first to school board policies that define the roles of board members.

The actions taken by the Lee GOP center around Bowen’s failure to support Republicans Sherry Lynn Womack and Pamela Sutton as officers of the school board, for decisions that led to an extension of the employment contract of district Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan by another 30 months, and for allowing the board to hear from every person who wished to speak at a meeting that dealt with publicity generated by Womack’s attendance at Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on January 6, 2021.

Local GOP leaders declined to answer questions about the matter, saying it was internal and they consider it closed in terms of providing a description of the process or any public comment.

However, documents obtained by The Rant make clear the charges against Bowen appeared to center around issues some county Republican leaders have stewed about for months and that have made the Lee County Board of Education a lightning rod for criticism in some circles.

Bowen’s defense was spirited and her answers to the charges exacting in detail. But in the end, the result was one that local political observers of all stripes would likely have expected.

The plan by which she was judged is a document adopted by the Lee GOP that governs how it handles discipline within party ranks when elected or non-elected officials do things the party considers to have hurt its reputation or fail to uphold its values. Two-thirds of the executive committee are required to vote in the affirmative for a finding of “guilty” and to administer sanctions.

Charge 1: Party Disloyalty

The first of the charges relate to the school board’s organizational meeting in December, when it elected its chair and vice chair for the year. The charge states that “Mrs. Bowen voted for Christine Hilliard, a registered democrat (sic), to serve as the Lee County School Board Vice-Chair, over Sherry Lynn Womack, a registered republican (sic), after Mrs. Womack had been formally nominated to be Vice Chair by board member Pamela Sutton.”

The charge alleges that Bowen went back on an agreement made with the executive committee in December 2020 to vote for Womack, wife of Republican Party Chairman Jim Womack, after having been warned of the consequences of doing so at a November meeting of the executive committee.

The complaint filed against Bowen is she “consciously chose to vote for a democrat (sic) over a republican (sic) for that position.” She responded that the Code of Ethics for School Board Members, codified in Lee County school board policy, requires members “render all decisions based on the available facts and his/her independent judgment, and refuse to surrender that judgment to individuals or special interest groups.”

Bowen doesn’t deny making an agreement in 2020 to support Womack as vice chair in the 2021 election of officers, but says she talked with her at the November executive committee meeting about serving on school board committees. Womack told her “she had other priorities, including going back to school and caring for her aging/ill mother. This is the primary reason that I chose not to support her nomination for Vice Chair.”

Bowen also recounted an incident that took place just five days before that executive committee meeting when Womack was supposed to attend a meeting at Lee Early College on the campus of Central Carolina Community College as chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Committee.

According to Bowen, “the date of the meeting and location were posted nearly a year in advance. Mrs. Womack ‘got lost’ on her way to the meeting, as she did not know where Lee Early College was located. Upon her arrival, she verbally berated the staff for not directing traffic to their location. This is conduct unbecoming an elected official, as she should know where all the schools are, and it is not their responsibility to ensure that she arrives to her expected location on time.”

The executive committee found Bowen guilty of the party disloyalty charge.

Charge 2: An “Ethical Breach”

The selection of officers for 2022 was also the basis for a related charge against Bowen. GOP leadership repeated its allegation that Bowen had agreed to support fellow Republicans Pamela Sutton and Sherry Womack as chair and vice chair for 2022 in exchange for their support of Bowen and Christine Hilliard (at that time, a Republican who changed parties and became a Democrat last September) for the 2021 year.

The second charge was similar to the first, but this one centered on Bowen’s vote for herself as chair in December instead of Sutton. Again, Republican leadership maintained Bowen’s failure to support Sutton’s nomination constituted a breach of personal ethics. She said Sutton had never expressed to her an interest in serving in leadership and that Sutton “rarely gave any input during the dedicated board comments portion of the meetings.”

After being elected chair in December, Bowen asked Sutton to name the board committees on which she would like to serve, and Sutton responded that she would prefer not to serve on any committee because of her need to care for older relatives in declining health.

Bowen’s response was “it is not unethical to vote for people who are both willing and able to serve in the positions to which they are elected and duly nominated.”

Two items from the public record are worth mentioning. First, the original vote for chair for 2022 was five in favor of Bowen and two for Sutton. Bowen then changed her vote in support of Sutton, saying she believed she could work with her. The second is that even if Bowen had supported Sutton during the initial vote, it would have made no difference in the outcome. There were four votes – one more than needed – cast to elect Bowen by the board’s Democratic members – Hilliard, McCracken, Kelly, and Smith. All the Democrats voted for a Republican to serve as chair.

Even so, the Lee GOP took issue with Bowen’s vote for herself over Sutton and found her guilty of the second charge of what it termed an “ethical breach” by failing to support a fellow Republican, even if having done so would have had no chance of changing the electoral result.

Charge 3: “Personal Misconduct” #1

GOP leadership also took issue with Bowen’s handling of a vote just four months ago that renewed the employment contract of Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan through June 2024. That action came following a closed session of the board where an informal evaluation of Bryan’s contract led to a motion for a contract extension and a 5-1 vote in favor of the extension. Sutton cast the only no vote and Womack was absent that evening.

The Republican Executive Committee has long had issues regarding Bryan’s performance and its charge against Bowen in the contract renewal matter is the latest salvo that centers on two specific actions it says Bowen failed to take as a good Republican. First, to notify the other Republicans on the Board the contract was going to be discussed, and second, that she didn’t notify the Lee County GOP “of a sound rationale for extending a failing and irresponsible superintendent.”

Bowen pointed out that the agenda for the November meeting contained both an agenda item regarding an evaluation of Bryan’s performance and a copy of his contract for their review, and that those items were received five days before the meeting. She said her actions were in strict compliance with the code of ethics requiring board members to “avoid being placed in a position of conflict of interest, and refrain from using the board members’ position on the board for personal or partisan gain.”

As Bowen made clear at several points in her response to the charges levied, her personal moral code was that her duty to carry out her public duties according to the rules and regulations that govern how such responsibilities are to be performed surpassed any loyalty that she might have to a political party.

In its charging document, the Lee GOP asserted “Bowen knew the contract extension would be very controversial among her republican (sic) associates and that it was strongly objected to by the Lee County Republican Party” and that her decision not to consult with other party leaders prior to the contract renewal was an embarrassment to the party and “brought discredit on the party among businessmen and elected officials across Lee County.”

The committee found Bowen “guilty” of this third charge as well.

Charge 4: “Personal Misconduct” #2

The final charge against Bowen was also labeled “personal misconduct” and also related to another sore spot among local Republicans – what they consider as the poor treatment Sherry Womack received after going to Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington in January 2021.

Womack at the event spoke to a reporter from USA Today. In a story published the day of the attack, the writer said “Womack, a member of the Lee County board of education in North Carolina, said she traveled to Washington to demand better election security and stronger voter ID laws.”

Upon the story’s publication, questions arose locally as to whether Womack had violated board policy by speaking as its spokesperson and, in a public meeting, large numbers sent in comments that were both in support of and against Womack’s use of her affiliation with the board.

In the charging document, GOP leadership took issue with “the majority of the public comments, read by the Superintendent,” which it said, “were from misinformed students who lacked parental approvals, and who verbally abused and attacked republican (sic) board member Sherry-Lynn Womack for her attendance.”

The charges also maintained Bowen had demanded that Womack attend the meeting via Zoom teleconference instead of participating in-person, that she allowed extended public comments that were “unprecedented in board history,” and that she authorized a formal legal investigation into Womack’s D.C. trip that found she had broken no board policies.

Bowen’s responses to this charge were among her most direct. She told the committee “if a student wants to address the board, he or she has the right to do so, with or without parental consent. Just because this topic was personal, does not make it unlawful for the students’ voices to be heard.”

She said Womack chose of her own accord to attend the meeting virtually after consulting with the Lee County Health Department and being advised that out-of-state travel required a mandatory five day isolation or self-quarantine at that time.

Extended time for comments from the public is not an unusual occurrence for matters coming before the school board in which there is public interest. Bowen pointed out that at the very next meeting following the reading of many comments that opposed Womack’s trip, large numbers of comments from Republicans across the state were read into the record during a time for public comments that was extended to accommodate all of them.

Bowen explained the investigation into Womack’s trip had nothing to do with her presence at the Trump rally.

“The question,” she said, “was in invoking her position, had she violated the board policy/rules regarding who speaks for the board of education?”

“I did tell Mrs. Womack that her actions and her actions alone resulted in the outrage and public outcry,” Bowen told GOP leadership. “The public was under stay-at-home orders, and an elected official (did) the opposite of those orders. She absolutely has the right to participate in any event she sees fit, but as an elected official she also has to answer to the consequences of doing so.”

The fourth charge against Bowen is the only one that did not result in a finding of guilt.

Not without precedent

The actions taken against Bowen are not without precedent in the local GOP. In 2019, another Republican school board member, Stephen Coble, was reprimanded by the party for what it termed “party disloyalty” and “gross inefficiency.”

Coble was also dinged for his support for the extension of Bryan’s contract that year and for “the unlawful award of a school architecture bid,” “his repeated votes in support of democrats (sic) running against nominated Republicans for Board Chair and Vice Chair,” his rejection of “unsolicited inputs” from local GOP leaders, and his alleged refusal to second motions made by fellow Republican school board members.

Coble chose not to run for re-election and his term expired in 2020.

Still a Republican

Lee GOP leadership has made its case against Bowen and decided that as a consequence of violating its plan of organization, she won’t be supported by them if she decides to run for re-election in 2024.

Denial of support is a significant action. These days, campaigns are becoming increasingly expensive, even those for local office. For a party to turn its back on one of its highest elected officials in a county is more than just a historical oddity. What’s more, Bowen will face official censure by the party sometime in the coming days.

Bowen said she had no plans to change her party affiliation.

“At the end of this meeting tonight, you will still have me as a member of the Republican Party. I will still be the chair of the Lee County School Board. I have not changed. If you vote to convict me on any of these charges, then you have changed, not me,” she said. “I ran for the board of education as a parent, not a politician. I will vote my own mind. I will speak what I feel is right. And what you do with that is your choice. I remain a proud American, a Christian, and a mother. My allegiance is to Christ alone, my first loyalty beyond him is to my family, and very far down that list is the political party.”