Moore County Schools Superintendent Dr. Robert Grimesey was fired in a special meeting of the Board of Education on Thursday, June 4.
Despite considerable outcry from principals, teachers, parents, and even elected officials, Board members voted five-to-three to "unilaterally terminate" Grimesey's contract, and to pay for the $165,500 cost of severing that contract out of the district's fund balance.
Laura Lang made the motion to fire Grimesey. With a second from Ben Cameron, it won the support of Kathy Farren, Becky Carlson, and Sue Black. Chairman Bruce Cunningham opposed the motion, as did Charles Lambert and Ed Dennison.
In a separate motion, the Board agreed to hire retired Deputy Superintendent Larry Upchurch, a longtime MCS veteran, as Interim Superintendent. Upchurch's five month contract calls for a salary of $12,400 per month, along with a monthly $600 car and $50 cellphone allowance.
Moore County's Board of Commissioners were quick to register their displeasure with the firing of Grimesey. Chairman Nick Picerno has called a special meeting for Noon on Wednesday, June 10 on the pending County budget — and on a potential recall of the School Board.
Picerno told The Times that he does not believe taxpayer dollars should be spent on a $165,500 severance package, when money for classrooms teachers is in short supply.
On the recall front, Picerno said State Representative Jamie Boles, who has also publicly expressed his displeasure over the School Board's actions, put the possibility of a recall on the table and provided the County Attorney with legal documents to review, so that she can brief the Commissioners on their options during the Special Meeting.
"We have a couple of options," Picerno told The Times. "I don't know that we will do anything. But we may vote to proceed during next week's meeting."
The called meeting is a Special Meeting, not a simple Work Session, so the Commissioners can take action during the meeting.
The Thursday, May 4 Special Meeting of the Moore County Board of Education began in the Board Room of the MCS Central Office, where an overflow crowd lined the walls, and sat on the floor. After Chairman Cunningham opened the meeting, the Board quickly retired to an hour long closed session to consider personnel and legal matters.
In the Board's absence, several of those attendance addressed the crowd, voicing support for Grimesey and disdain for the Board members who orchestrated his removal.
Dr. John Dempsey, President of Sandhills Community College, suggested that a recall election may be in order. Dempsey had worked closely with Grimesey on making it possible for more MCS high school students to attend classes on the SCC campus, as well as on longer term planning for a new concept high school to be located near SCC.
Also in the audience were County Commissioners Katherine Graham, Otis Ritter, and Randy Saunders, as well as Southern Pines Mayor David McNeill and Aberdeen Mayor Robbie Farrell.
Meanwhile, Central Office staffers fretted that the Board Room crowd exceeded fire code. So, when the Board returned from closed session, the meeting was moved to the Commissioners' meeting room in the Historic Courthouse in Carthage.
The change of venue did not dampen the enthusiasm of the large crowd of Grimesey supporters, who began filling the courthouse seats well before the scheduled 10:30 am restart of the meeting.
Board member comments
Only Lang, Dennison, and Cunningham made comments before the final vote, their remarks punctuated by the cheers and jeers of the crowd, depending on whether they were against or for the motion to fire Grimesey.
Dennison's comments made clear that the entire Board had not been involved in the discussion of the Superintendent's employment status until a firm majority for termination had been assembled privately.
"If any Board member thinks a Superintendent is not meeting expectations, then the Board as a whole needs to discuss it as soon as it happens and not wait until his annual evaluation," Dennison said. "Discussions should not be held and decisions made between individual Board members."
"All Board members should be involved in the decision making process; not just five."
Lang said she was sorry not to be able to discuss personnel matters in public, "because if I could, I am confident you would agree with my choice."
Referring to considerable criticism that had been publicly leveled in online forums against members of the Central Office staff by Grimesey supporters, Lang apologized "to the Central Office staff for taking the heat for something they did not ask for or deserve."
"When the majority of the Board loses trust and respect for its leader, then it's time for a change," Lang said.
And, seemingly daring voters to unseat her at the ballot box, she added, "When the majority of the public loses trust and respect for its Board of Education, they may vote them out."
Lang's remarks were greeted with hoots and chants of "Shame on you."
Cunningham recounted three key achievements of the past year: a vastly improved relationship between the School Board and Board of Commissioners; new opportunities for MCS high school students to study at SCC, and the completion of the countywide rollout of laptop and tablet computers. In all three, he said, Grimesey played a key role.
Cunningham then read from an email he had received from a principal, whom he chose not to identify.
The principal reported that "Moore County teachers are struggling to keep the fire for teaching alive in our school system. Gratefully, this year, I have seen morale improve . . . I attribute this to the positive interactions they have had with our Superintendent."
"When they speak to me about him, their voices are full of gratitude and joy. They express how much his visits and emails that always follow meant to them. . . "
"I observed an immediate loss of hope, and what can only be described as fear," as they learned that Grimesey's contract might be terminated.
"Should the Board move forward, the impact on our teachers will be felt tremendously. And I can honestly say, the light that we have worked so hard to stoke will be smothered."
Grimesey addresses crowd
Grimesey himself spoke to the crowd after the Board voted, saying "A contract may be terminated, but a calling may never be denied."
"I was called to serve the children, employees, families, and other citizens of Moore County. And, by most indications, it would seem that I have fulfilled that obligation."
He thanked students, parents, MCS employees, military families, and the community at large for the support he received during his year as Superintendent.
He thanked those who had contacted him with "messages of encouragement" since the news of his impending termination broke on Tuesday morning.
"If I could do it one hundred times over again, I would accept the call to serve as Superintendent of your schools," Grimesey said in conclusion. "I do not regret any of the moments we have shared during this past year, It has been my honor and my privilege."
Grimesey's remarks were accepted with a standing ovation, sustained applause, and chants of "Dr. Bob, Dr. Bob."
Upchurch to 'take the helm'
Once the vote to terminate Grimesey's contract was complete, Cunningham and Farren both endorsed tapping Upchurch to serve as Interim Superintendent.
"Someone has to be the captain of the ship, and everyone has to know that," Cunningham said, drawing on his experience in the US Navy.
"We agree that Larry Upchurch is the best person to take the helm at this time," Farren said.