By Richard Sullins |

Three months after leaving the position he had held with Lee County Schools for a decade, former Superintendent of Schools Dr. Andy Bryan was hired Monday as the new superintendent in the Edgecombe County system, based in Tarboro.

Dr. Bryan was hired on a 5-1 vote of the Edgecombe County Board of Education. One member voted against the hiring and another did not attend the meeting.

Bryan will succeed the retiring Dr. Valerie Bridges, who became the first woman to serve as superintendent in Edgecombe County when she was selected for the job in 2017. She was named North Carolina Superintendent of the Year in 2022.

The terms of Bryan’s hiring package approved by the Edgecombe board include an annual salary of $138,012, plus an annual local supplement of $45,000. He will receive the usual benefits of retirement and health insurance offered to all employees, making the total value of his contract in excess of $225,000.

Edgecombe, a system with 15 schools, is slightly smaller than the 18 campuses that make up Lee County Schools, but the number of students served is quite different. Edgecombe has approximately 5,400 students, roughly half the size of Lee County Schools, which today serves around 9,400 kids.

But it’s in those 5,400 students where Bryan will face an almost immediate test. According to data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Edgecombe is graded as a low performing unit, with 14 of its 15 schools receiving a grade of C or less on the latest state report card and five of those 15 getting an F.

The data also shows that only seven of the 15 schools met performance goals last year and three exceeded theirs, which included the one school – Edgecombe Early College High School – that scored higher than a C last year.

Dr. Bryan resigned his position as superintendent in Lee County on May 9, rather than face an almost certain firing vote by the Republican majority that now controls the Lee County board. Bryan had often been at odds with Republican members of the board and when that faction gained control following the November 2022 election, his fate was sealed.

Bryan stepped into the role of superintendent just as the county was coming to an inflection point. At the moment he assumed office in 2013, the county’s economy was beginning to change from its historically agricultural base to one more rooted in 21st Century demands of science and manufacturing. It was Bryan who helped to steer the direction of the district’s curriculum to one that more directly supported the new industries being recruited to locate their bleeding-edge technology applications in Lee County.

But it was his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that cast a shadow over his many accomplishments and ultimately led to his ouster.

While many in the community were pleased with his cautious approach that kept students out of the classroom for months, others disagreed and felt that kids needed to be back in school, regardless of the fact that there were no vaccines or effective treatments available at that time. The best scientific minds believed then that isolation offered the best hopes of containing the outbreak, and the more than 7,000 cases of COVID-19 reported in the county in January of 2022 seemed to support that strategy.

But the decision to require students to wear masks for months after returning to school was particularly unpopular with some, prompting crowds of angry parents to show up at one school board meeting after another, speaking out in defiance of state mandates aimed at protecting the health of students and staff alike.

That anger quickly became focused on Bryan, and led to a voter turnout that swept all three of the open seats on the board of education last November and changed philosophical control of the board.

Lee County search set to begin

Meanwhile, the search for Bryan’s replacement in Lee County is finally getting underway. Although a position vacancy was created and posted on the district’s website shortly after Bryan’s resignation, the school board has encountered a lack of interest among professional consulting firms that help in finding the right match for Lee County.

When the need for the services of a professional search firm was first advertised, the school board received only one proposal, from the North Carolina School Boards Association. This lack of interest led the board on July 18 to extend the original deadline to August 1 in hopes of finding others with the expertise of attracting candidates on a national basis.

But that extra time produced no additional proposals and on August 8, the board discussed its options during a lengthy closed session. When it returned to open session, a decision had been reached, but it was not a unanimous one.

Democratic board member Patrick Kelly stated his objection to spending $25,000 on the search, saying he thought it was something the board could do itself.

“There was only one firm that submitted (a proposal), and I don’t feel like it’s needed,” he said. “Their references could have been better. It doesn’t sit well with me. Why couldn’t we do it ourselves and saved that $25,000?”

Kelly was joined in his opposition by Republican and Vice Chairman Eric Davidson, who said, “we are spending money, and I think this is a place where we can save that money.”

But the board’s chair, Republican Sherry Womack, disagreed.

“$25,000 may seem like a lot of money,” she said. “But it’s nothing if we don’t come up with the absolute best person to lead our school system for our kids and our community.”

Former school board chairman Bill Tatum attended the meeting and spoke to the issue of selecting the right superintendent during the public comments portion of the session. Tatum questioned whether a search was needed at all after reading into the record a listing of qualifications for the position and speaking briefly on how Interim Superintendent Dr. Chris Dossenbach was meeting each of them.

Womack stressed the importance and the value of going through the process to find the best person for the job. She said following that process to its conclusion was in no way making a statement of any sort against Dossenbach. Womack said Dossenbach himself wanted to avoid any appearances of favoritism as the process moved ahead.

When the vote was taken, the board voted by a 4-2 margin to engage the services of the state school boards association to conduct the search. Kelly and Davidson voted against the proposal and unaffiliated member Sandra Bowen was recused from the vote because she serves as a member of the association’s board of directors.

The board has scheduled a special called meeting for Thursday, August 17 at 4 p.m. to meet with Sam Thorp, assistant legal counsel for superintendent searches with the North Carolina School Boards Association, to talk about the beginning of the search process.