By Richard Sullins |

A meeting of the Lee County Board of Education that started with only a handful of items on the agenda turned into an affair lasting just short of five hours on Tuesday night, with more than half the gathering taking place behind closed doors.

By the time it was all over just before the clock struck 11 p.m., the new Republican majority had provided a textbook example in how the direction of an organization can be changed in the span of a few hours when you have the votes.

This new majority, joined by veteran Republican board member Sherry Lynn Womack, began by ousting fellow GOP and politically moderate Republican member Sandra Bowen as chair of the board, handing the gavel to Womack as its new leader.

With three new members joining the board all at once, a bit of time in bringing them up to speed was expected. But some people in the audience were surprised that not all of them seemed to have spent adequate time with their homework before taking their oath of office.

Democrats had reclaimed a majority on the school board in September 2021 when Vice Chair Christine Hilliard switched her political affiliation from Republican to Democratic.

But the November 8 elections saw the political pendulum take a swing to the right with the election of three first-time members of the GOP – Eric Davidson, Chris Gaster, and Alan Rummel.

New direction set

Davidson, Gaster and Rummel were sworn into office at 5:30 p.m. before the meeting started, followed by a short reception for congratulations and well-wishes. When the meeting started promptly at 6 p.m., the new Republican majority made clear that they intended more besides changing who will hold the gavel.

As the meeting’s agenda came up for a vote, Rummel and Gaster offered up a quiver of seven motions to add additional items for consideration and have the public take notice that at least for the short term, there will be investigations and, in some cases, reinvestigations of things that were previously believed settled.

The list of potential topics offered in a rapid-fire fashion sought to collectively set a direction that few subjects – if any – would be off-limits for this board during their next 12 months.

Gaster succeeded in adding an item that to create new performance and fiscal audits of Lee County Schools “so that we will have the latest data to work with. Gaster linked his motion to a performance audit done by Evergreen Solutions of the school district in 2012, suggesting new findings might lead to new policies and strategies to relate to a decline in test scores observed over the past decade and noting his intent in offering the motion was to create a foundation for the school board and commissioners to work more closely together.

Much to be learned

But Gaster seemed to be operating from a perception that a fiscal audit had not been done since 2012, a notion that was quickly corrected by Womack and Bowen. Rummel wanted the work to include sections on the status of each funding stream from which the board obtains funds and strategies for making use of those dollars.

No one was prepared to provide detailed information on the 2012 recommendations that resulted from the study, but Democratic board member Patrick Kelly remembered that the Evergreen Solutions document recommended doing away with locally hired custodians and bus drivers, replacing them instead with contracted workers.

The difference among the board members centered on the amount of information being provided through the current auditing process and whether more of this information could be better obtained through a third-party auditing process. Gaster’s original motion passed with four votes in favor, two against, and one abstention.

Rummel questioned whether the board’s current legal representative, the Raleigh firm of Tharrington Smith, should continue representing the board’s interests. Rummel said he was interested “in ensuring that the current firm is adequately representing us and ensuring that we are being represented in a fiscally responsible manner.”

But by this point after other similar motions had been offered by the new members, Democratic board member Jamey Laudate seemed to have had enough of motions appearing to question the way the board operates without having a firm understanding of how and why things work the way they do in the public sector. He asked Rummel “how can you have concerns on something you have no insight on?”

Gaster directed a question to the board’s attorney who was in the meeting room, asking who the legal counsel represents and implying it might be the administration rather than the board. After the attorney assured Gaster that their representation was always that of the board as the statutory authority, Gaster replied, “then I’m sure you wouldn’t mind doing another presentation” for the board’s business.

Another example came when new member Davidson asked about the details in the monthly financial reports for each school and what information each member of the board should glean from them and what use to make of them.

Womack asked Kelly and Laudate to speak to how they made use of this type of information. Both said it gave them a sense of the types of donations being made at individual schools and a means of drilling down into the level of financial accountability at the institution. Womack did not speak as to how she made use of the data.

The requests made by the new Republican majority were all striking in one other major aspect: there was no question or consideration that appeared to be given to the financial costs of the proposed actions versus the potential benefits that might be gained. In fact, no cost estimates for any of the independent reviews that Rummel and Gaster proposed were given.

For example, the costs of contracting with an outside attorney (presumably not Tharrington Smith) for an evaluation and report as to whether warnings of potential issues with a faculty member had been missed could easily end up costing the board tens of thousands of dollars, money that is required by state law to be paid by county taxpayers.

Likewise, a suggestion that a review of this type had the potential to cross paths with the ongoing legal investigation were not addressed.

Rummel offered the final motion of the evening before adjournment directed Dr. Bryan to bring recommendations to the board for a qualified legal firm to conduct an external investigation.

This issue, likely discussed during the board’s closed session, related to this same issue – the ongoing probe by the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney of alleged sexual abuse of students by former SanLee Middle School teacher Andrew Allen.

Statements issued on the day of Allen’s arrest by the Sheriff’s Office and Lee County Schools suggested that the abuse might have happened as far back as his hiring in 2012.

Rummel said he felt the board needed to assure the public that “no red flags were missed or issues still lingering that haven’t been addressed.” There was discussion before entering the closed session that these questions might be better addressed after legal proceedings against Allen were finished, but no resolution was reached and the board was unanimous in voting to authorize the process of beginning the search for a firm to conduct the inquiry.

In other business, the board approved a one-year contract for Lucas Yerger to serve as an assistant principal at Lee County High School and that SanLee Middle School had received re-validation of its AVID (Advancement By Individual Determination) program, helping to best serve students who need support to succeed in becoming college ready.

AVID is a nationally recognized method of using evidence-based research and strategies to accelerate the performance of students who need a boost as they aspire to do their best work in college-level studies.

What it all means

The direction of Lee County Schools over the next couple of years will be riding on how well the switching out of nearly half of the members of its governing body plays out. Davidson and Rummel were quick to agree with Gaster’s own assessment of the task facing each of them: “There is a lot that I need to learn. A whole lot.”