Jeffrey Moss's supporters say he has expanded classroom technology and improved graduation rates while leading his North Carolina school district. Detractors say he denied school for a student on long-term suspension and cursed at two people during a public forum.
Beaufort County residents can begin to make up their own minds Wednesday when Moss appears at the first of three public forums to introduce finalists for the Beaufort County School District superintendent position.
The public can submit written questions at the forums or on the district's website.
Moss's forum will be 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the district office. Kathryn LeRoy will appear Thursday at the district office, and Gloria J. Davis will be featured after the Board of Education's meeting Feb. 19.
The board hopes to have a new superintendent under contract by the first week in March, board chairman Bill Evans said, although the selected candidate would probably not start until July 1.
The chosen candidate's salary would be "in the range of $215,000," according to the job posting.
Moss has spent 30 years in public education and has been superintendent of Lee County, N.C., schools since January 2009. Before that, he was superintendent of schools in Beaufort County, N.C., and Stanly County, N.C., which is near Charlotte.
Moss said both he and his wife have family and friends in South Carolina. He said he enjoys the area's scenic beauty and believes the Beaufort County school district parallels his own district.
"Both are invested in digital tools to help students succeed in the classroom," Moss said.
The Beaufort County board's search firm, Ray and Associates, described Moss as "highly visible and approachable in the community" and "fearless in pursuit of best practices for teachers and students."
"In fact, the Governor of North Carolina has attempted to recruit Dr. Moss as his foremost education adviser, especially in the areas of technology and school safety," according to the search firm.
Moss declined to comment about seeking the position, saying he considered such information confidential.
In a questionnaire submitted to Ray and Associates, he said, "The Governor of North Carolina has tentatively offered me the position of Education Policy Adviser, which is the equivalent of state superintendent, but he cannot match my salary."
An attempt Monday to reach a spokesman for N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory was unsuccessful.
TECH, TEST RESULTS
Statistically, Moss's district is smaller and less affluent than the Beaufort County district. Sixty-five percent of Lee County's 9,850 students receive free or reduced-price lunch, a commonly accepted measure of poverty within a school district. By comparison, about 55 percent of Beaufort County's 20,000 students receive subsidized meals.
Nonetheless, the Lee district's graduation rate has improved, from 71 percent in 2009 to 84 percent in 2012, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The state graduation rate, which also rose during that time, was 80 percent in 2012.
The graduation rate for minority students has improved at nearly the same pace. Hispanics, who make up 31 percent of the Lee County student population, improved from 61.5 percent to 83.5 percent; blacks, who are 32 percent of the district's population, rose from 70.6 percent to 81 percent. Further, about 83 percent of the county's economically disadvantaged students graduated last year, compared to just 66.6 percent in 2009.
Lee County students, though, trailed statewide averages for the percentage of students at or above grade level on year-end and end-of-course tests, according its state report card.
Schools also lagged in meeting academic growth goals last school year, according to state data.
"We are in a district that is very poor," Lee County school board member Cameron Sharpe said. "There are socio-economic factors that play into that."
That hasn't prevented the district for forging ahead in technology and the sciences.
Every Lee County student in grades 3 through 12 has a laptop. Moss also established science, technology, engineering and mathematics curricula at all three middle schools; those schools feed an engineering program at two high schools, associate superintendent Andy Bryan said. The district also offers an apprenticeship program with Caterpillar and Central Carolina Community College, and Rosetta Stone instruction for 25 foreign languages.
"Our mantra here is to make education relevant and meaningful," Lee County school board Chairman Lynn Smith said. "If we can do that, students will take more ownership of their education and lead to improved student achievement."
Bryan was even more effusive about his boss's record.
"His leadership has set the vision to improve student achievement and transform Lee County classrooms into the 21st century models for education," Bryan said.
SUBJECT OF CONTROVERSY
Moss has occasionally aroused critics.
In 2008, while in Beaufort County, N.C., he and the school board defended the district there against claims they violated state law by denying alternative schooling to a sophomore who was suspended for fighting at school.
North Carolina law requires alternative-learning programs for students serving long-term suspensions. However, the court ruled administrators are not required to accommodate suspended students who are violent, threaten staff or students, disrupt learning, or engage in serious misconduct.
The court did say that Moss and school officials must explain why they denied a suspended student any alternatives, and it sent the case back to lower courts for further action.
More recently, two people attending a political forum in Sanford, N.C., in October said Moss cursed at them during a heated discussion of school performance and finances.
A video posted to YouTube shows Moss pointing his finger in the face of a parent who attended the forum, but it's not clear from the video whether Moss cursed.
Moss denies using foul language; attempts to reach the man he argued with that evening, Brian McRae, were unsuccessful.
"I said Brian and others needed to get themselves under control, because the entire night they were being rude in their comments and flipping me the middle finger," Moss said.
The Lee County school board took no action following the incident.
"The board couldn't verify what was said," Sharpe said. "There was some kind of confrontation, but there were conflicting reports. ... I've been on the board since 2008, and that's the only thing that's come into question since he's been superintendent."
MAKING UP THEIR OWN MINDS
JoAnn Orischak, who represents part of Hilton Head Island and is on the school board's superintendent search committee, said she didn't know about the video until after the committee selected finalists.
Orischak said she doesn't know what to think of the video.
"When I listened to the video, I wasn't able to make out much," she said. "... I think you would be hard-pressed not to find something in a school administrator's background, whether well-founded or not, that would raise some eyebrows. Everyone trips up here or there, and you have to weigh (that) against what they've accomplished."
Orischak said she expects the topic to come up at Wednesday's forum but could not say how much of a factor it will be in the board's decision.
Bottom line, says Sharpe and Smith: "We would be losing a superb superintendent."