Education lawyer Stephen Rawson of Tharrington Smith will be the Lee County Board of Education’s new attorney, members decided Tuesday.
The board interviewed two candidates last week in preparation for the retirement of current board attorney Jimmy Love, who has represented the board for more than 40 years. Love said he plans to retire from Lee County Schools on June 30, although he will continue his work as attorney for Central Carolina Community College.
On Tuesday, the school board selected the Tharrington Smith law firm in a 5-2 vote, with members Sherry Womack and Pam Sutton voting against.
The other candidate was longtime lawyer S. Ellis Hankins of The Brough Law Firm. Board members agreed he and his firm were qualified, but ultimately decided on Tharrington Smith.
In addition to having significant experience in education law, more than half of the associates at Tharrington Smith “start out as teachers first and then went back to law school,” said board member Patrick Kelly. “That speaks a lot to me, that they were in the classroom before they chose law, and it gives them a different perspective.”
Board member Lynn Smith agreed, adding that the firm “had a reasonable solution for our fines and forfeiture collections.”
Ensuring the school board gets their rightful share of money from local fines and forfeitures has been a longtime priority of Love and the board. Rawson assured board members during his interview that he does a lot of bond forfeiture work around the state and the goal of the firm is to make the process efficient.
“We are looking to maximize that, both in terms of getting money that you’re entitled to and not paying too much to get it,” Rawson said.
Board member Pam Sutton had reservations when it came to the cost of retaining Tharrington Smith. Unlike The Brough Law Firm, Tharrington Smith charges for travel time. Time spent driving to and from meetings, as well as legal work, is billed at a rate of $235 per hour for partners, $210 per hour for associates and $110 per hour for paralegals.
“We would be spending hundreds of dollars for attorneys on the road with Tharrington Smith,” Sutton said, noting the cost would add up over time.
The Brough Law Firm, on the other hand, does not charge for travel time and has a lower hourly rate, Sutton said. She also said she felt the firm’s promise to unequivocally support the board, even in a conflict with district staff, was compatible with the board’s needs.
Board member Sherry Womack also voted against the appointment of Tharrington Smith. Womack said the board needed more time consider the respective costs of each law firm, particularly in terms of how much time is spent on fines and forfeitures.
About 240 hours has been spent on fines and forfeitures in the past 18 months, said Superintendent Andy Bryan. He noted the number could be skewed due to the coronavirus pandemic, prompting Womack to again request more information about the average number of hours spent on the issue in a traditional fiscal year.
Womack proposed the board table a decision until members received clearer information as to the current attorney’s roles, responsibilities and fees, but her motion was rejected.
Also Tuesday, the board of education approved the 2021-22 traditional school calendar. The calendar reverses several welcome changes from last year that were made possible under special COVID-19 legislation, according to Chris Dossenbach, assistant superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction.
This year, that legislation has expired, forcing the district to revert to its old calendar and move the first day of school up a week. For the 2021-22 school year, the first day of school is Aug. 23, meaning high school exams can no longer be held before Christmas break, the school year cannot end before Memorial Day and the spring breaks of traditional schools and Tramway Elementary School are misaligned.
Also Tuesday, the board of education approved:
• the extension of Family First Coronavirus Response Act benefits, including emergency COVID-19 leave, through Sept. 3;
• the purchase of interactive panels for Broadway, Greenwood, J. Glenn Edwards and J.R. Ingram elementary schools;
• the purchase of new desktops and monitors for Broadway, Deep River and Greenwood elementary schools;
• the purchase of new desktops, monitors and laptops for Lee County High School;
• a five-year, $247,144 contract with M&W Landscaping for mowing work at district schools; and
• the replacement of eight school buses.
Members of the Lee County Board of Education implored the public to stop engaging in a political back-and-forth Tuesday after a letter-writing campaign reignited protest over the behavior of two members.
In the past four months, Republican Sherry Womack and Democrat Patrick Kelly have each been investigated in an effort to discover whether their private conduct violates school board policy, particularly the ethics clause.
Womack came under fire after attending a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C. that preceded an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Despite not being involved in the attack, Womack was harshly criticized and said at one meeting that she and members of her family had even been personally threatened. The official investigation revealed no wrongdoing.
Following the incident, Womack’s husband Jim Womack publicly alleged at a Lee County Board of Commissioners meeting that Kelly had engaged in “an alarming pattern of behavior,” practicing “bondage, submission and sado-masochism.” Jim Womack distributed photos of Kelly, allegedly found on sexually explicit websites, to board members. An investigation into whether Kelly’s conduct broke school board policy is ongoing.
A significant amount of time at recent board meetings has been devoted to dealing with the public backlash to these two incidents. Members of the public have organized rallies, made phone calls and written letters to public officials. Hours of public comments defending and detracting Womack and Kelly have been read aloud. The school board has even debated whether it is appropriate to approve such investigations.
The controversy continued this week when dozens of copies of the same letter criticizing Sherry Womack and the Lee County Republican Party were sent to N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein; members of the school board, city council and board of commissioners; and The Sanford Herald.
The letter alleges that Jim Womack acted on behalf of Sherry Womack in his statements about Kelly and reads in part, “The recent actions of Mrs. Womack demonstrate that she does not maintain her focus on the students or her commitment to the school system. Mrs. Womack proudly engages in rhetoric and political activities that are divisive and harmful to our students and community.”
The letter goes on to say that, “anyone involved must be held criminally responsible, but clearly, justice will not be served.”
Board of commissioners chairman Kirk Smith, who had previously called for Kelly’s resignation, replied to letter with a short note Monday, writing, “Thank you for this in-depth form letter. Unfortunately it is fraught with distortions, half truths and outright lies.”
Smith went on to say that if the writer of the letter is comfortable with Kelly’s conduct, “you truly need to reevaluate your moral standards.”
Chairwoman Sandra Bowen responded to the political firestorm Tuesday by calling for a cessation of hostilities. Bowen assured the community that “what concerns you in regard to education in Lee County concerns me too” and that all letters are read.
She went on to say, however, that people will likely not receive a response to emails concerning issues that are “under current investigation, political in nature or otherwise not in the purview of this board.”
“There are limitations on what this board can do. We cannot remove members based on shifts in public opinion. Only voters can do that,” Bowen said. ”Please, at this time, let’s refocus on education, for the citizens, for the students and for the staff of Lee County Schools.”
Board member Christine Hilliard also condemned the political rhetoric.
“This is something that’s weighed very heavily on me. We’ve had a rough couple of months. And at this point I feel like this has to stop and it needs to stop right here and right now,” she said.
“As member of the Lee County Board of Education, our responsibilities lie within providing our children with the best possible education to set them on a path for lifetime success. We also have fiduciary and operational responsibility for one of the largest employers in Lee County and an $85 million business.”
Hilliard said the events of the past for months have been a distraction at best and an embarrassment at worst.
“Trading barbs that are grounded in partisan politics serves no-one, except for those who are enjoying throwing the barbs,” Hilliard said. “As vice-chair, I do not wish to take sides in anyone’s fight. On the contrary, I respectfully ask this board to stop now and return to the business of educating our children. And in turn, I ask the citizens of our community, and anyone else who thinks they have an interest in the workings of our board to do the same.”
Two hiring events are planned in Sanford, according to a release from the NCWorks Lee County Career Center.
Defender Services, a staffing company, will be recruiting Friday for Parkdale Mills in Sanford, the release said.
The event, scheduled from 1-3:30 p.m., will be in the parking lot of the Spring Lane Cinemas, 1351 Plaza Blvd., the release said.
Parkdale Mills, a yarn manufacturer, is looking for full-time workers for the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, according to the posting on the ncworks.gov.
The plant is at 1921 Boone Trail Road.
Recruiters will be onsite as will the NCWorks mobile unit, the release said.
Additional information can be found at ncworks.gov and searching Job Order #: 11580909.
On Monday, Pilgrim’s Pride will host an outdoor hiring event from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the NCWorks Career Center Lee County, 1909 Lee Ave.
Masks are required and social distancing will be enforced, a release said.
Pilgrim’s Pride is hiring full- and part-time workers for first and second shifts, the release said, and is offering a $1,000 sign-on bonus.
More information is available at ncworks.gov searching Job Order # 11458691.