By Richard Sullins |

A fourth teacher in the Math Department at Lee County High School has come forward with criticism of school board chair Sherry Lynn Womack for her claim that changes made by the new Republican majority led to an improvement in test scores at the high school and moved it out of the “low performing school” basement.

This most recent challenge to Womack’s assertion came from Kirby Forbes, a math teacher at the high school who was named Lee County’s Beginning Teacher of the Year earlier this year and received runner-up honors in the statewide competition this March at a banquet at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

Forbes sent an email to each of the seven members of the Lee County Board of Education after last week’s meeting on September 12 with an attached letter that called out Womack for falsely claiming that it was the school board who deserved the credit for the high school’s improvement in the School Performance grading system report released by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

That methodology resulted in LCHS moving from a “low performing” or D ranking in 2021-22 to a C in 2022-23.

Having second thoughts

After receiving her Beginning Teacher honors, Forbes said she was asked several times in interviews why she wanted to teach in Lee County. The easy answer for her was because Sanford is her home, but Womack’s failure to recognize that it was the hard work of students, faculty, and administrators that turned things around have made her second-guess the wisdom of that choice.

Her letter said she loves teaching here “despite knowing that I could receive better pay elsewhere.” But being at home only goes so far, and Forbes went on to say she feels abandoned and defeated by district leadership, saying the county has “a school board that chooses to credit themselves for the work done by students in the classroom” and is one that “does not congratulate or celebrate the students, teachers, or admin team that took their school performance grade from a D to a C.”

Openly challenging the school board that employs them, and can also fire them, is a risky move on the part of Forbes and three others who spoke at the board meeting on September 12 and called Womack out for taking credit for achievements they see as belonging to students and educators.

But what seems to have driven these four teachers to tell Womack that she was completely off-base are the bonds teachers form with their students. Math teacher Brandi Johnston explained it during the September 12 meeting when she said, “I advocate for my students with the ferocity of a lioness.”

Forbes said she was also personally offended by “the comments made about our school grade because of how much effort I put into my job every day.”

The controversy began after DPI released its annual report on School Performance Grades, which uses a formula created by the state legislature to assign a letter grade to each public school in the state based on its achievement and growth during the previous year.

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 near the end of the release that led to an outcry from the high school’s Math Department. It read, “last year’s performance validates the many vital changes the Lee County Board of Education began since last December.”

Remarks contributing to low morale

Forbes’ letter came just after three of her colleagues in the LCHS Math Department – John Mathis, Shannon Monteiro, and Johnston – spoke at the September 12 meeting.

In her letter, Forbes said she was personally offended by Womack’s comments, but she was “heartbroken for the students in my classrooms who worked diligently all throughout the semester to grow so much on their (end of course testing).”

She told board members of feeling “offended for students who told me on the first day of class that they hated math and had never been able to understand it, and just a few short 18 weeks later were able to stand in the halls of LCHS with tears of joy and smiles of excitement after receiving their passing EOC score.”

“I was offended for (one) student who was projected a score of 6 on the EOC and scored an 81. I was offended for my honors class from the fall semester who received a 100 percent proficiency rating as a class and an average of 25.8 points of growth from their projections,” she wrote.

Forbes called the board’s attention to a video she had recently watched of a superintendent in another North Carolina school district where there has been a considerable turnaround in performance grades. This superintendent attributed the changes to “the perseverance and dedication of our students, staff, and
families,” which has made it difficult for Forbes to answer the question of why she is choosing to give her all to Lee County.

Forbes’ letter brings the number of Math Department teachers who have spoken out about Womack’s comments to four, nearly half of the nine full-time faculty members that make up the department. There has been no retraction of her words or statements offering an apology or clarification.

Superintendent interviews set to begin

The school board’s next several days will be incredibly busy ones. They are expected to receive the application materials submitted by all applicants for the vacant superintendent position on Friday, and they will review each of those over the weekend before a round of closed door meetings take place on September 25 as first-round interviews for the position get under way.