Hoke County Schools legal counsel to terminate contract

RAEFORD – The Hoke County Schools Board of Education held a work session on Tuesday, May 23, with various updates regarding vacant positions.

The first update the board received was the survey results from the North Carolina School Boards Association Superintendent Search that had been sent out to the staff and the community.

The previous superintendent, Dr. Debra Dowless, had suddenly resigned at the request of the school board in February, leaving the district with a vacancy.

“You had very, very strong participation in the survey by both your staff and your community,” said Assistant Legal Counsel for Superintendent Searches at NCSBA Sam Thorp. “Specifically, in total, you received 232 responses to the community surveys and 516 responses to the staff surveys. Of those that responded, 95 community members and 171 staff members also submitted with comments.”

According to the results, the community demographics were primarily from those that were parents of Hoke students who lived in Hoke attendance areas, but there were also responses from Hoke alumni, students, retired community members and businesses.

“What the survey did was it asked respondents to rate numerically the characteristics that are most important to them in a new superintendent,” Thorp said. “Within the top five characteristics, there was actually a pretty high level of agreement between the staff and community.”

The four top priorities in both the staff and community surveys included: ‘Models high standards of integrity,’ ‘Understands how to provide safe environments for students and staff,’ ‘Communicates with people of all races and socioeconomic status,’ and ‘Is willing to listen to input.’

The community had a priority of ‘Knows how to encourage staff, students, parents, and community members to work together’ in its top five responses, while staff had ‘Understands how to effectively advocate for needed resources’ as a top-five priority.

The community and staff also had the exact same top-five priorities in terms of rating what experience was important for a new superintendent to have had. Those include ‘Is accessible and responsive to parents’/guardians’ concerns in a timely fashion,’ ‘Has experience with building, maintaining, and managing schools,’ ‘Has experience in curriculum development and instruction,’ ‘Has been a successful principal’ and ‘Has been an effective classroom teacher.’

The board of education stated they would gather the information and relay their desires for the superintendent profile back to the NCSBA at a later date which will then be shared with the public.

The board was also given an update on a potential auditing firm partner for the district for the upcoming financial year.

“We put an RFP to find a public school auditing firm,” said Assistant Finance Officer Willena Richardson. We had one firm reply, and that agency was Thompson, Price, Scott, Adams & Co. They are offering to perform our annual audit services for a term of three years. Normally, when we get an audit firm, they do it for three years. The fees are $31,500 per year beginning June 30, 2023. Other services that are not included – such as the annual Comprehensive Financial Report – will be $135 per hour with prior approval from the board. We reserve the right to renew for two years after they do the audit for the first time, or we can do it year by year, but three years is going to cost us that set price. The price includes personnel costs, travel, and on-site work.”

The firm has also conducted audits with eight other school districts within the last year.

The board was also updated on the search for a new Finance Office, which the opening has been posted for since March 24.

“At this point in time, we’ve only had three applications for a Finance Officer,” said Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Shawn O’Connor. “The criteria is a little more strict than it has been in the past, so these individuals have to have five years of professional experience in finance along with a bachelor’s degree with 15 semester hours in accounting or a CPA. The other part of this is that if they were certified with the State Board of Education as a school finance officer prior to this July 1, they also can be eligible.”

According to O’Connor, even if Hoke County Schools chooses an applicant, they still will have to be submitted to the State Board of Education and DPI’s Finance Department to be approved prior to being offered employment.

Finally, the board of education is also now apparently having to deal with finding new legal counsel after their priorly contracted firm, Tharrington Smith, announced at the end of the meeting that they would be terminating their contract in a decision more than likely linked to some apparent issues that had arisen between the board and attorney Carolyn Murchison, who had been serving as the attorney to the board up to a few weeks prior before she was ultimately dismissed.

The official letter that had been sent to the board has been acquired by the North State Journal with the FOIA, and it states the following, “After careful consideration, the partners in our firms’ Education Section have determined that we will no longer be able to serve as general counsel for Hoke County Schools after the ninety (90) day notice required by our Contract for the Provision of Legal Services that the contract will terminate effective August 12, 2023.

“Many of us here at Tharrington Smith have been directly involved in the delivery of services to the Hoke County Schools these past several years. We say without hesitation that we feel both honored and privileged to have represented, advised and advocated for the Hoke County Schools, and in doing so, have formed many wonderful relationships both with the board members and staff that we cherish. We are proud of the legal guidance and advocacy we provide to the district. Once new counsel is selected, we will work diligently to transition any active matters to them. In addition, unless your liability coverage providers decide otherwise, we will continue to defend Hoke County Schools in any pending litigation should such case continue beyond August 12.

“Thank you again for the opportunity to serve Hoke County Schools. We look forward to working with you through the transition period.”

The Hoke County Board of Education will next meet June 13.