LUMBERTON — A longtime Richmond County educator has been tapped to lead Robeson County’s public schools.
The Robeson County Board of Education approved Rick Watkins’ appointment in a split vote on Tuesday night. Five board members voted against his appointment while five voted in favor. Board Chairman Mike Smith broke the tie in favor of Watkins’ hiring.
Watkins replaces Johnny Hunt, who served as superintendent for nine years before retiring on July 1. Assistant Superintendent Tommy Lowry served as interim superintendent during the selection process.
A Hamlet native who spent 27 years of his career in education with Richmond County Schools, Watkins was not present at the meeting.
Watkins also worked as Scotland County Schools’ assistant superintendent and was an assistant professor at Wingate University. He was one of two finalists for the Richmond County superintendent job. The school board voted unanimously last August to hire Dr. Cindy Goodman, who was then serving as interim superintendent.
Tuesday’s Robeson County school board meeting was contentious at times and some board members cited an interview that Watkins gave to The Robesonian newspaper late in the selection process as a reason for their opposition to his hiring.
“I have a lot of concern about a candidate — I didn’t originally, but I do now — about a candidate who violates the ethics of this board and any board for that matter,” Board member Jo Ann Lowery said. “It was unprofessional, unethical and illegal when he conducted an interview with The Robesonian.”
Board attorney Grady Hunt declined to say if Watkins had been barred from speaking with the press before a formal decision had been made.
In the newspaper interview, Watkins confirmed that he had been offered a contract and that final negotiations were under way. At the time, school board members would not confirm publicly that Watkins had been offered the position.
Board member Dwayne Smith said Watkins’ interview was a mistake, but a minor one.
“We all make mistakes, we all understand that. I’ll be the first to admit I make mistakes,” he said. “But if that’s the way we’re going to look at this right here, we won’t have nobody in the Public Schools of Robeson County. Everybody makes mistakes and that’s the bottom line.”
He said that some board members are influenced by outside sources and he is tired of the county “being run by politicians.”
“I’ll tell this board right here: shame on any of you for not standing up for the public schools and having people tell you how to vote and what to do,” he said. “That’s your privilege, that’s what you came on here to do was to vote and do what you think is right. We’re all going to be accountable for what’s going on here.”
John Campbell, who is vice chairman of the board and voted against hiring Watkins, said that talking to the press was not the only mistake that Watkins made. He said that Watkins incorrectly stated on his application that he had a valid superintendent license — one that Campbell said has expired.
“I don’t know who Mr. Dwayne is talking about,” Campbell said. “I mean what he is saying can apply to those who are saying ‘I support Dr. Watkins’ — the same very thing. So I don’t know who he’s trying to disparage, but if you live in a glass house and throw a rock, you better be careful, that’s all I’m saying.”
Board member Loistine DeFreece said she was bothered by Watkins’ lack of classroom experience.
“As an educator, my first concern was that he had never been a teacher,” DeFreece said. “My next concern is that he’s been out of public education for six years.”
Watkins has been working at Wingate University since 2009 as an assistant professor of education, where he trained graduate students to be able to work in classrooms and other roles within school systems. He previously worked for 29 years in North Carolina’s public education system, inlcuding two years in Scotland County as an associate superintendent for administrative services.
He also served as an assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent for human resources in Richmond County.
Board member Brenda Fairley-Ferebee said that board had not make the best decision because officials had focused on the race of the applicants.
“We know that we are not hiring the most qualified candidate,” she said. “And I, with my whole heart, believe its because of race that the most qualified candidates were not hired.
Watkins has also worked as an adjunct, assistant professor of education for St. Andrews Presbyterian College and The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, as well as working as an education consultant providing technical assistance to select school districts in the Southeast.
Watkins is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, UNCP, and Nova Southeastern University in Florida. He is the recipient of numerous awards in the field of education and has been a member and leader of many community and educational organizations.
Reach reporter Gabrielle Isaac of The Robesonian at 910-816-1989 and follow her on Twitter @news_gabbie.