(Part one in a series of three stories on public education in Lee County)
Six months into a new Republican-led Board of Education in Lee County, there’s been good and bad. It’s all part of the learning process, says board chair.
By Richard Sullins | email@example.com
When it comes to assuming the duties of a publicly elected office, the learning curve can be steep. Candidates don’t have to prove they are qualified to do the job, and the skills and knowledge required to campaign can be easier to grasp than those needed to govern, especially when there’s precious little time between winning an election and being seated.
Even so, the basics can be learned pretty quickly. The hard part is to fall victim to the temptation to do more than what you know, or “getting out over your skis.”
Last November, Lee County voters took one of the sharpest electoral turns in recent memory when they elected three new members to the school board, all of them conservative Republicans. Combined with fellow conservative Republican Sherry Lynn Womack, who was immediately made chair of the board, the election led a sea change in the direction that Lee County Schools would follow for at least the next two years and, quite possibly, even longer.
The trio of newly elected members — Eric Davidson, Chris Gaster and Alan Rummel — had attended meetings of the previous board for more than a year, and Gaster and Rummel in particular took advantage multiple times of the board’s public comment period during that time to advance their campaign messages.
They had a captive audience to hear their case, with many watching in the board’s chambers and more on video streaming services. They developed long lists of followers on social media. But none of those advantages could compare to the challenge before them. Not one of three had ever served before in an elected capacity.
For them, governing was going to be a whole new experience, and they were about to get a crash course in the limitations of the office.
Setting a new course
No one with even a passing interest in Lee County politics should have been surprised by the agenda the new majority planned to pursue after their election. It had been spelled out in their social media messaging, through their advertising and in an impressive ground game that got their voters to the polls.
The message this trio of candidates carried throughout the campaign was simple and straightforward: This board is broken, and we can fix it.
Eleven meetings have taken place since the new board was seated in December. By a standard that most reasonable people might apply, their efforts so far have been a mixed bag. Like learning to ride a bike, the new majority has experienced a number of starts and stops. But there has been important progress to report.
They have established what seems to be a strong working relationship with the other Republican-controlled elective body in the county, the Lee County Board of Commissioners. They have kick-started the process of using growth projections for new industry and housing developments to see where and when new schools could be needed. They’ve invited the right people to come to the table and it’s going to be exciting to see what they can do.
Davidson, Rummel and Gaster are asking questions — lots of questions — and many are the kind of questions that should have been asked for years.
But there’s another side to the coin.
From the moment they were sworn in, the new Republican majority has been operating at warp speed. There is a sense among them that everything they want to do must be done as quickly as possible, and in some cases, that urgency to act does exist.
There have been displays of pettiness at times over the past six months, resulting in a tendency to take their focus away from the students they took an oath to serve and devote time instead to settling old personal and political scores that conservative Republicans have for years lacked the power to do.
But Womack sees a board that is just getting its footing.
“Our board has been blessed with four new bright professional minds that consistently add value and insight to the board,” she said. “I have a deep respect for each member. We are one team with one goal to improve and support the public schools in Lee County. As a combat veteran, I can tell you that these four men are some of the most dedicated selfless servants in which I have had the honor to serve, second only to an SF team in Afghanistan. They are proactive, data driven and passionate about making long lasting change.”
Travel agents, litter boxes,
school plays and auditors
The previous chair of the school board, Sandra Bowen, was twice censured by the Lee County Republican Party for alleged violations of its Plan of Organization, with the door to the party’s Steele Street headquarters effectively slammed in her face. Most recently, she was charged with party disloyalty because she’d nominated a Democrat for the position of the school board’s vice chair.
Bowen, who subsequently changed her party affiliation from Republican to “Unaffiliated,” asked the school board in January to approve an additional $1,000 in funding to cover the costs of her attendance at a school board executives meeting in Florida. Her colleague Gaster said he had “conducted (my) own little investigation,” questioning each of the estimates that had been prepared by the assistant to the superintendent, Susan Britt.
The depths of what Gaster did not know soon became apparent. The cost of airline flights changes by the hour, blocks of rooms reserved for a conference fill up quickly and others nearby do as well, and the state has rules for how funds are spent and reimbursed for meals and other expenses. Gaster seemed to be implying that Bowen was trying to “game the system” with her travel estimates, but his argument fell flat. Only Rummel voted with Gaster as the other five members of the board voted to approve Bowen’s travel request.
The duties of a member of any publicly elected body require absolute devotion to the truth, a kind of truth that is not always found on the internet. For months before the election, Gaster claimed in remarks he made to the previous board and in video postings on his Facebook account that some students at Lee County High School were dressing and acting as cats, and that litter boxes had been placed around the campus for their use.
It was a rumor that started in late 2021 in Michigan but which has been debunked over and over again since. But even though Gaster now has the power to investigate allegations like this, he’s nothing about getting to the bottom of this one. Nor has he apologized publicly for spreading a known falsehood.
In another instance that took place in February, Gaster took to his Facebook page to announce that a play he considered to be promoting alternative lifestyles was planning to be held in May at SanLee Middle School. Rather than call the school’s principal or the school board chair, Gaster instead urged his followers to call the district’s central office and make the telephone there “ring off the hook.” Had he made any of those calls himself, he could have learned that the story had no basis in actual fact. The school chose another play, and the controversy blew over.
Womack came to the March 14 board meeting holding a letter received that same day from the district’s auditor. The letter informed her that his upcoming audit report would include a financial note about the system’s practices for transferring funds. It prompted Womack to say that she was losing confidence in the district’s ability to act as good fiscal stewards.
But just four weeks later, the auditor — Dale Smith of Anderson Smith & Wike — appeared before the board to say that his note concerned a circumstance commonly observed in units of government similar in size to Lee County Schools. Womack’s questions about sums of money that seem to have suddenly vanished were explained by the migration of the district’s financial software system that was taking place around the same time as the audit field work. The bottom line was audit terms have specific meanings, not always the ones laypersons ascribe to them.
It was a mix-up.
It’s all part of a learning process, says Womack.
“I am very proud of this board and their accomplishments, over the last six months . We are all growing and learning everyday. Everything from the performance audit, internal investigation and calendar changes are vital in the process.
“Open communication and transparency builds trust and provides the essential foundation to make wise decisions while serving the citizens of Lee County. I serve the board as their chair, but I also serve the community. What I love about this board is that we accept each others mistakes and any of us make we can call each other and say, ‘Hey, we probably could have done that better.’ And then we move on. We do not rehash the past.”
Perhaps the most controversial action by the new board to date — and the most reflective of national politics — was a unanimous decision to enact a “Parents Bill of Rights” in March.
On its face, the policy sounds mundane in that it says the board “recognizes and respects parental/guardian involvement in their children’s education” and defers to the parent or guardian “to make the best social and moral decisions with respect to their children.” But others worried the language may force teachers to “out” students considering a change in their gender identity or pronoun usage to their parents.
At least one high school student, who asked not to be identified, told The Rant at the time they were concerned the policy would negatively impact students. Several parents in online comments from this story have also expressed concern over the policy. Some have suggested the school board has overstepped its bounds and is focusing on unimportant issues while ignoring actual “education issues.”
The policy reads: “Parent/guardians are in the best position to work with their children and, where appropriate, their children’s health care providers to determine: a) what names, nicknames and/or pronouns if any, shall be used for their child by teachers and school staff while their child is at school, b) whether their child engages in any counseling or social transition at school that encourages a gender that differs from their child’s sex or c) whether their child expresses a gender that differs from their child’s sex while at school.”
Although the board’s two Democrats were joined by Bowen in opposing the policy on its first reading in February — their objection was rooted in the fact that the state was considering similar language at the time, and passage of the policy would be redundant — they joined the new GOP majority in March to pass the second reading unanimously.
Also added to the board’s policy list at the time was a section on “Balance & Fairness” that requires staff members to “remain neutral” on controversial topics and “present the information without bias.” The code suggests that topics like Critical Race Theory and negative aspects of American history will be off limits in local classrooms, though it doesn’t go into specific details.
Both measures mirrored similar policies passed in Florida and signed into law by Governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis.
Good bye, Dr. Bryan
The results from the November election took less than five hours to count, but Dr. Andy Bryan must have known that the final chapters of his professional life in Lee County had long been in draft form. Republican hardliners had been trying for years to get rid of him, and now, they were about to be handed the reins of power.
To his supporters, Bryan was a well-prepared administrator with a wealth of experience. They tell stories of how he used his influence and the powers of his office to help others who had none and stayed out of the limelight. They also say that his absence of need for the spotlight made him an easy target for opponents.
His opponents took his quiet approach to the position as a sign of weakness. Sherry Womack’s husband, Lee GOP Chairman Jim Womack, appeared at almost every board meeting for two years and often found ways to stick the superintendent with a new label. The one he used most on Bryan was “feckless” — lacking strength, character or initiative.
By early April of this year, the name of a Raleigh law firm began appearing on the agendas of several board meetings. The Brooks Pierce firm had been retained by the board in January to follow along behind the district attorney’s criminal inquiry against former SanLee Middle School teacher Andrew Allen of Siler City, who had been charged in November with sexual assault against a student.
The services of Brooks Pierce were retained to see if any signs about Allen’s alleged abuse had been missed and whether systems in place were adequate to prevent a similar event in the future. Womack read a summary statement from the investigators at the May 9 meeting, and the result appeared to be that others did not know of Allen’s alleged actions and that while policies could be improved, they had proved their worth this time.
Rumors of the conclusion of this investigation were circulating in the community as early as Palm Sunday. But it appears that the board was also preparing for legal action on a different front around the same time, and by May 5, Bryan had signed a four-page resignation agreement that spelled out terms for his departure. The board voted to accept his resignation at their next meeting four days later and named Chris Dossenbach — the district’s assistant superintendent and a one-time LCS Principal of the Year at Lee County High School — as interim superintendent.
Under the terms of the agreement, Bryan received $90,000 as a buyout of the remainder of his contract, as well as six months of insurance coverage valued at no more than $1,250 per month.
And in an interesting twist, the seven current members of the school board, along with Bryan, agreed not to make any defamatory, false or misleading statements about the other during the remainder of Bryan’s contract.
TRANSPARENCY: When I speak of change I am not just talking about making our public schools more transparent and accountable to the public. I am also referencing the way the board functions and how it should be utilized in the future.
PROCEDURES: Every election board members may change and new members join the board. This board now has workbooks for new board members before they are even sworn in and currently developing guide books requiring constant updates to assist them in their daily duties while serving on the board. We have also established Continuity Books, so if one board member has to leave for whatever reason the incoming board member who replaces them will be able to step in, and know exactly where the other one left off. This will provide forward momentum of progress.
We keep each other accountable and respect our differences. The diversity of the board brings strength and this is the strongest I have ever seen the board. We all recognize the urgency for change, transparency, accountability and direction. The way each board member brings something to the table is beyond anything any ONE of us could accomplish. It’s similar to the phrase, ‘We may not have it all together, but together we got it all!”
I am very proud of this board and their accomplishments, over the last six months . We are all growing and learning everyday. Everything from the performance audit, internal investigation and calendar changes are vital in the process.
RESPECT: I think the greatest thing about this board is that we sincerely trust and respect each other. It is easy to work and pray for each other because we know deep down no matter what the media puts out WE ALL have a love and dedication to our public schools and our community.