The Beaufort County school board chose Lee County, N.C., schools superintendent Jeffrey Moss over Gloria J. Davis of Decatur, Ill., to be the district's next superintendent -- despite Davis' backing by senior staff.
The Board of Education voted 9-2 Thursday -- with Laura Bush and Michael Rivers dissenting -- to name Moss superintendent, pending approval of an employment contract. He would begin work July 1.
"I am honored," Moss said in an email. "... During my visits and conversations with board members and staff it was clear the number one priority is the education of our citizens and students. I am looking forward to working with board members, staff, parents, community and business leaders."
Both finalists have been lauded for helping their districts close racial and socio-economic achievement gaps and bolster curriculum.
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Moss has spent 30 years in public education and has been superintendent of the 9,850-student Lee County School District in Sanford, N.C., 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' supporters say he has expanded classroom technology and improved graduation rates, though some standardized-test scores lag state averages.
He established a laptop program for all students and staff in grades 3-12, encouraged students to enroll in higher-level classes, and expanded career and technical programs through apprenticeships, according to Lee County officials.
Board-hired 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."
Those traits resonated with board members, chairman Bill Evans said.
"This was a very difficult decision for the board because we had to choose between two excellent candidates," Evans said. "Dr. Moss ultimately was our choice because of his strong commitment to technology and the history of academic improvements in the districts he has led. We repeatedly heard about his ability to get the most out of people and ... put the right staff in the right place to make the biggest difference in the lives of kids."
Evans also cited Moss' expertise in financial matters, his commitment to alternative education and his support for school choice.
MAKING STRIDES, BUTTING HEADS
Statistically, Moss' district is smaller and less affluent than the 21,000-student Beaufort County district.
Sixty-five percent of Lee County's students receive free or reduced-price lunches, a commonly accepted measure of poverty.
Nonetheless, Lee County's on-time graduation rate increased from 71 percent in 2009 to 84 percent in 2012 -- surpassing the state rate.
The dropout rate also fell, particularly among minority and economically disadvantaged students, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Outside the classroom, Moss has been criticized for butting heads with Republican lawmakers over budget cuts and policies, and was accused of cursing at two people at a political forum during a heated discussion of school finances.
Moss has repeatedly denied doing so, and audio from a YouTube video of the exchange isn't clear.
Evans said he believes the accusation is unfounded.
SUPPORT FOR DAVIS
Davis' supporters say she has increased academic rigor and student achievement.
Her district, though, is in the fourth year of a corrective action plan for failing to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
She received the backing of interim Beaufort County superintendent Jackie Rosswurm and the district's senior staff in a letter last week to Bush, the board's secretary.
While Rosswurm said the group felt Moss would be a capable superintendent, staff was impressed by Davis' collaborative leadership style and her ability to rally support for district plans.
Bush and Rivers echoed those sentiments Thursday.
"My vote certainly was not against Dr. Moss. I will give him all the support that he needs," Bush said. "Beaufort County has an achievement gap and I'm certainly hoping Dr. Moss can help us eliminate that, but (I) felt Ms. Davis had a better, 'student-first' approach that touched me."
Rivers said he was impressed by Davis' ability to instill discipline and raise achievement for students of all backgrounds, despite large populations of low-income and at-risk students.
"She was able to turn things around," Rivers said. "... And the enthusiasm everyone (in Decatur) demonstrated about her leadership -- that cemented my feeling" that she was the right choice.
The school district's former superintendent, Valerie Truesdale, retired in October and accepted a senior position in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District.
Rosswurm, the district's human resources chief, has been serving as acting superintendent. She did not apply for the superintendent's position.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom