As the scheduled time for Superintendent Dr. Bob Grimesey's annual evaluation approached, former Board member Sue Black told The Times, it became clear, in private discussions among Board members, that a majority of the Board was not in favor of keeping him in the job.
The Times interviewed Black via telephone on Saturday, June 13.
Black, who resigned from the Board in the wake of the public outcry over Grimesey's firing, is not willing to talk about why his contract was terminated, but she was willing to talk with The Times about some of the events surrounding his dismissal — and how she believes they have been mischaracterized by the press and misunderstood by the public.
In particular, she disputes School Board Chairman's Bruce Cunningham's account, as reported by the Southern Pines Pilot newspaper, of a private conversation they had prior to Grimesey's ouster.
Discomfort with Grimesey
As Board members began to work on the superintendent's evaluation, she said, they began to compare notes privately.
"Board members get to talk among themselves outside of a Board meeting," she told The Times. And, in fact, nothing in North Carolina's Open Meetings Law forbids conversations among individual Board members outside of formal meetings.
"Things like, 'Here's my experience, did you have this experience?'," she said. "That was particularly important for me, since I had only been on the Board this year."
Though Black had served a total of eighteen years on the Board of Education in terms scattered over three decades, her most recent term began in December, so she had only about six months of experience with Grimesey.
As the lack of support for Grimesey became clear, Black said, she felt it was important that all Board members were informed.
"This happened to me when I was on the Board in 1987," Black said. "I walked into a Board meeting with no idea that the Superintendent was about to be fired."
Black was recalling the firing of then-Superintendent Dr. Robert Tyndall, in a six-to-two vote of the Board. She was one of the two.
"That's not a good idea," Black told The Times. "All Board members should be aware of what's going on."
The call to Cunningham
"I have been a big supporter of Bruce Cunningham," Black said. "So, I called him."
Black said she told Cunningham that "it appears the Board is not feeling good about the relationship with Dr. Grimesey. Some of us have had some informal discussions."
After some conversation, Cunningham asked if there was a plan to temporarily fill the Superintendent's chair.
Black confirmed that there was.
Vice Chairman Kathy Farren had already approached retired Assistant Superintendent Larry Upchurch about accepting the post of interim Superintendent. But Cunningham knew nothing about that.
"What's the plan?" Cunningham asked.
"I can't tell you," Black replied, initially.
But, on second thought, she agreed to give Cunningham the details, "but you will have to keep it confidential, because we have to protect him, we have to protect Dr. Upchurch."
Black told The Times that she and the other Board members who had been discussing the possibility of unilaterally terminating Grimesey's contract didn't want to create any negative fallout for Upchurch, should the termination not happen.
One conversation, two recollections
Black's version of that conversation with Cunningham differs in a key detail with Cunningham's recollection, as reported by the Southern Pines Pilot.
The Southern Pines newspaper quotes Cunningham as saying: “She said, ‘There are no reasons to fire him. We are not trying to embarrass him. The main concern is to protect somebody.’”
And the fact that the "somebody" in that quote is unnamed immediately launched speculation on social media that the protected party was Associate Superintendent Kathy Kennedy, who heads Moore County Schools' Instructional Design and Innovation Department.
Though, to date, no credible evidence has emerged in the press or elsewhere that Kennedy had anything to do with Board Members' conversations about Grimesey's continued employment, both members of the Parents for Moore Facebook group and the Southern Pines Pilot have called for her resignation.
A complaint filed by State Representative Jamie Boles in order to obtain a temporary restraining order limiting the power of the School Board claimed that those who voted to fire Grimesey were motivated by "personal favoritism and affiliation with Kathy Kennedy, Assistant [sic] Superintendent, who, upon information and belief, sought the job of Moore County Superintendent when it became available."
Black says she made clear in her conversation with Cunningham that the party she was concerned to protect was Upchurch.
As for Kennedy, Black said, "The idea that Dr. Kathy Kennedy would be made superintendent was never discussed in any meeting that I have been in. I've never had any conversation about any position other than her current position."
"As I understand it," Black said, "the test scores of Moore County students have gone up considerably in the years since Dr. Kennedy arrived and began insisting that teachers teach to the North Carolina state standards, which is what we are supposed to be doing."
Giving in to mob rule?
Of her former fellow Board members, Cunningham, Charles Lambert, and Ed Dennison, Black said, "They did know this was coming."
"I myself talked with Bruce [Cunningham] and Charles [Lambert] because I did not want them to walk into that meeting cold turkey."
Black said another Board member had spoken with Dennison, who indicated he wasn't interested in a private conversation on the matter, but would wait for the Board to convene in closed session.
Black said she is unwilling to discuss the reasons for Grimesey's termination until the Superintendent signs a release allowing her to do so. She said she feels bound by the rules for closed meetings, the rules for keeping personnel matters confidential, and by the terms of Grimesey's unilateral termination agreement.
"I am not protected by the School Board's attorney, since I have resigned," she added.
During a press conference the night of his reinstatement, Grimesey said he would need to review the documents related to his dismissal before agreeing to make them public.
As for the public outcry that surrounded the decision to remove Grimesey, Black said she believes it "sets a very dangerous precedent."
"When you give in to mob rule on one thing," she said, "you don't know when you might have to give in to the mob next."