By Richard Sullins |

A complaint alleging ethics violations by three members of the Lee County Board of Education failed to get the necessary votes for a formal investigation at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Alan Rummel, a Republican candidate for one of the three spots on the November ballot that party voters will choose in the May 17 primary, filed a complaint with the board following a meeting of its Curriculum and Instruction Committee on April 6 at Southern Lee High School, claiming that Democratic member Patrick Kelly made a “personal and false accusation/attack” against him after he made remarks at the end of the meeting.

The committee’s chair, Democrat Christine Hilliard, and chair of the board, Republican Sandra Bowen, were also cited in the complaint because they “were in attendance and did nothing to stop this verbal attack.”

Since Kelly, Hilliard, and Bowen were named in Rummel’s complaint, they did not participate in the discussion or the vote on the matter.

Republican board member Sherry Lynn Womack made a motion to authorize a formal investigation by an outside legal counsel of the complaint at the board’s expense, a motion that was seconded by Republican member Pamela Sutton. Womack said her view was that charges made against of the board should be held to a higher standard of investigatory review.

But Democratic member Pat McCracken held up copies of emails from Rummel and Kelly, which had been sent to all members of the school board.

“Based on the emails sent to all of us,” he said, “I think there is sufficient resolution contained in my reading of those emails that were sent.”

Democratic member Dr. Lynn Smith said his reading of the email communications was the same as McCracken’s, which was that both men had come to an understanding and the issues between them had been resolved. Rummel told The Rant later that McCracken and Smith had pulled words from his emails selectively.

Kelly told The Rant he believed that the issues between him and Rummel and been cleared up as well, and that when he learned that Rummel had filed an ethics complaint against him the next day, “I was just stunned. Completely surprised.”

Rummel also believed that the air had been cleared between the two but thought a formal complaint was necessary based on principle.

“On a personal level, I believe my conversation with Mr. Kelly and his apology were sincere and sufficient,” he said. “I think we came to a consensus on views and facts, and he apologized. I accepted that apology. That said, I filed the complaint because the act of Mr. Kelly calling out a parent by name and making an easily proven false accusation at an official board meeting is not acceptable and I believe it is an ethics violation.”

Womack’s motion failed in a 2-2 tie vote, and at least for the moment, the issue seems dead.

But if the motion had passed, it would have marked the fourth time in the last three years the board had authorized a formal investigation into one or more of its own members.

Both parties say that the disagreement began after Rummel, who said he attended the committee meeting “as a parent of two kids in our school system,” made comments at the end of the committee meeting. Rummel said they related to a new program in elementary schools called the “Science of Reading” that is revolutionizing how children are learning to read, and that he mentioned that parents, who had been involved in classrooms prior to COVID, now hope to be invited to return to their child’s classroom.

Kelly, who is a member of the committee, told The Rant that “after Mr. Rummel finished his comments, I stood up and stated to the room of faculty and staff to be careful of those who say they support you, but don’t support you by saying there is no need for a supplement increase.”

“This was not a personal attack,” Kelly said, “and my goal was then and now to remind the community and the county commissioners how much our teachers and staff deserve an increase and how that increase will help the education of our students by keeping our best teachers here and attracting the best to our system.”

Even though Kelly felt he had not verbally attacked the Republican candidate, Rummel’s complaint said that he felt “ambushed” by Kelly’s remarks and that what Kelly was saying about him had nothing to do with what he had said to the committee. The two men began a back-and-forth discussion that lasted for several minutes about whether Rummel, in fact, opposes increases in teacher supplement. At times, the discussions were heated and intense, according to some who were present.

Kelly told The Rant he became emotional in his remarks because he feels strongly that the county has an obligation to provide its teachers with adequate supplements that keep them teaching in Lee County Schools and from fleeing to other counties that offer higher enhancements. In his view, Rummel’s previous public remarks had been against providing supplements.

Kelly was referring to remarks Rummel had made to Lee County Commissioners on the issue of teacher supplements nearly three weeks before the committee’s meeting, during the public comment period of the commissioners meeting on March 21. As they met at the McSwain Center that evening, Rummel said, “I’m not here to advocate one way or another on this topic (of local supplements). I’m just here to ask that the commissioners consider all the facts before you decide whether or not to support the proposal.”

He then spoke to the commissioners about the higher costs of living in Chatham, Wake, and Durham counties and said that Lee County is in the top quarter for teacher supplements but around the middle for costs of living, suggesting that those counties pay higher supplements because the costs of living are greater.

Rummel’s full remarks can be viewed here, beginning at the 3:30 mark.

The Rant asked Rummel how he feels about teacher supplements.

“The teacher pay increase being discussed amounts to roughly $800 annually for an average Lee County teacher,” he said. “While that’s not a small amount, it’s not huge either and it’s my opinion that there are other things that can be done to provide significant value and morale improvement by improving the daily work-life of our school staff. I honestly find it to be lazy for board members to latch onto this pay increase, which they can’t control, rather than focusing on things within their control to drive improvements.”

“I think teachers are certainly underpaid for the work they do and the responsibility they shoulder, so I do support a local supplement to boost pay provided by the state,” he continued. “With that said, the superintendent said that the proposed wage increase was requested in order to compete with Wake, Chatham, and other surrounding counties. I discussed the problem with that simple and unsupported goal in my comments to the commissioners.”

The Rant recently covered the issue of funding for local teacher supplements and its implications for the next two political cycles.