By Richard Sullins |

It’s not uncommon to see teachers at meetings of the Lee County Board of Education. Even after a long day at school, sometimes as many as a dozen will come to talk about the achievements of their students or to introduce them to the board so they may hear firsthand of the ways learning is opening up the world to them.

But three teachers from the Math Department at Lee County High School came to the September 12 board meeting with a message of betrayal for its chair, Republican Sherry Lynn Womack, saying she used a hard-won moment of student achievement to grab the glory for herself and the school board she leads.

Their appearance came just days after the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released its annual report on School Performance Grades, which uses a formula created by the state legislature to assign a letter grade to public schools in the state based on their achievement and growth during the previous year.

Those rankings showed Lee County High School had risen from a “low performing” status with a D in 2021-22 to an improved ranking of C in 2022-23.

A press release from the Lee County Schools on September 6 gave highlights from the year’s rankings, noting how schools had moved up or down on the scale. But it was a statement from Womack contained in the release that brought the teachers to Tuesday’s meeting. It read, “last year’s performance validates the many vital changes the Lee County Board of Education began since last December.”

The problem is that Womack and the Republican majority didn’t take control of the board until December of 2022. By that time, half of the school year had already gone by.

The math teachers compared the timeline of student performance measured against the roughly six months since the new board had taken office. Their comments accused Womack of claiming credit for outcomes they felt the school board had little or nothing to do with.

John Mathis, who serves as the department’s head, was the first to speak. He told the board how a fully staffed department in 2019 was now missing faculty in key positions, forcing some math teachers to teach four blocks per day instead of the normal three.

“It’s tough,” he said, “but we do it for the students. Everything we do is for the students.”

He said when he learned that the high school had increased its overall grade for the year from a D to a C, he immediately congratulated all of his Math 4 classes “because they are the students, the juniors and seniors, who were a major part of that success from last year.”

Mathis said when he read Womack’s quote, he felt “discouraged, perplexed, and upset.” The first set of tests that reflected the improved score were in January, just a month after the new majority was sworn into office. The second round of testing took place in June, six months after December.

He said he kept reading the press release, feeling sure it would contain praise for the high school’s students, its faculty and administration, and for parents.

“But none was to come,” he said.

A second teacher, Shannon Monteiro, described how faculty members decided in the fall of 2022 to come together and rise from the blemish of being a low performing school. When the scores arrived on September 6, teachers and students began to celebrate as the press release was read. But that exuberance turned quickly to “disappointment, sadness, and, quite frankly, anger” after finding no credit had been given to the students and teachers whose hard work made the improved scores possible.

It was a third LCHS math teacher, Brandi Johnston, who had the sharpest barbs for Womack’s claim that the credit belonged to her board.

Johnston said she, too, had “frantically” read the press release in hopes of finding words of congratulations and encouragement for the students and faculty. She said she’d hope to see such sentiments because students had “hurdled over learning gaps that resulted from the pandemic and online learning,” resulting in individual growth that helped them “to grow and excel, and to fall in love again with learning.”

“What changes did this board make that made my students want to perform better than they have ever performed before? What changes did you make in December that motivated the students to keep up and step up for the state exams in January? What changes did this board make that made me want to be the best educator that my students could possibly ever have?” she asked. “I’m disappointed that this board’s first thought was about themselves, and not those that made those changes. I’m ashamed that when given the opportunity, this board stole the credit from our students. You stole their praise. You stole their effort. You stole their validation and claimed it as your own. I’m just a measly old teacher and I don’t get a lot to say in what you get to do. But I do advocate for my students with the ferocity of a lioness, and this performance was not your validation. Be cautious about building your validation on the backs of those whose work goes unnoticed.”

Teachers are employed by the Lee County Board of Education, so to have a one  publicly criticize the leadership of the organization for which they work can be seen as a risky move. The entirety of the teachers’ remarks can be seen here, beginning around the 7:20 mark.

The school board doesn’t usually engage with speakers during public comments, choosing instead to include their remarks along with other portions of the meeting that become a part of the public record. But often, Womack has chosen before the meeting is adjourned to say a few sentences about a subject one or more speakers raised during the public comments period. That didn’t happen on September 12, and there has been no public statement issued on the subject since the meeting was adjourned.