The best thing any community can have is a public schools superintendent passionate about education and committed to children. As Moore County Schools Superintendent Bob Grimesey retires this week after more than seven years in the post and a 40-year career in education, he can never be accused of not leading with his heart.

Passion has been Grimesey’s lodestar. It has also been his Achilles heel.

For all his many accomplishments as superintendent, “Dr. Bob” also let that passion get the better of him. Powered by the courage of his convictions, he at times outpaced his own supporters, getting too far ahead where he couldn’t be as effective. And as valuable as passion and conviction are, so too are the abilities to negotiate and read tea leaves.

Moore County has seen all manner of superintendents: strong leaders like Robert E. Lee and Susan Purser, who led with conviction and a deft touch; controversial leaders, like Patrick Russo, who had his share of scandals; and cameo superintendents like Aaron Spence, who spent barely three years here between 2012 and 2014.

On balance, Moore County is much improved for Grimesey’s service.

‘It’s About Us’

Grimesey inherited a school district that was good but, according to its vision statement, sought to “grow to greatness.” The county was growing, and so was the district. Although financially sound, the district was too reliant on savings, the county wasn’t investing enough, and the physical shape of schools was sad.

But he never lost sight of the children. He went alone into schools, spending hours every week. He ate school lunches, worked math problems, chased ostriches, wore silly hats while reading and never left a classroom without thanking the teacher.

“It’s not necessarily about the superintendent, it’s about us,” Grimesey said in his first public speech in Moore County. “There is a lot of exciting vision, direction, and a lot of new ideas here, and plenty of really intentioned focus on children.”

He created a special focus on the children of military families, even making room in the central office staff for a district military liaison.

He spent a great deal of goodwill ensuring Moore County upgraded its schools. Millions have been spent on digital learning for students and technology for schools. He successfully led the investment in building four new elementary schools, a massive expansion at North Moore High and smaller-but-crucial upgrades at other schools.

Reflecting Back

Grimesey pursued his vision for success, but it was certitude in that vision that tripped him up. He never quite warmed up to local politics and the Board of Commissioners, arbiters of local education spending. Sometimes, they were on the same page, but oftentimes not. Budget presentations were always strained and felt like a high-stakes battle. Grimesey privately viewed these confrontations as “I’m right, they’re wrong.” He wasn’t necessarily wrong, but he lacked the political skills to negotiate on certain points.

Grimesey also ignored community hesitancy on drawing new attendance lines to balance demographics and ease crowding. He pushed the school board forward, convinced it was the right thing to do. In retrospect, it was rushed and forced in places. The goodwill of 2018 is gone.

No leader is all bad, or all good either. They are, instead, often a reflection of the people they lead. On that, Grimesey was a man for the people, even if the people weren’t always for the man.

“We’re going to act decisively, own our problems, and command our solutions on behalf of children in the future,” he said in those first-day remarks 7 ½ years ago. “We will do so with great vigor, great vitality and we will be advocates for children and work tirelessly for them. That has always been Moore County and will continue to be Moore County for a long time to come.”

Bob Grimesey reflected our passion, even if we didn’t always reflect his.

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(3) comments

Stephen Woodward

If only we could have risen to meet Grimesey's towering intellect "the people" would have forgiven his missteps, arrogance and incompetency. Got it.

Barbara Misiaszek

Got it? Incompetency? Yes you do.

John Misiaszek

Comment deleted.
Jim Tomashoff

Gee Kent, according to you this can't possibly be happening. And you continue to lie about enrollment in public schools being in decline. Why The Pilot editors continue to allow you to post comments at all is an example of being overly solicitous to the paper's subscribers, especially since of the the rules they've established is to "Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about or anything. Almost all of your comments contain such lies.

"The only public charter school in Moore County to offer high school will phase out grades nine through 12 by 2025.

Wes Graner, executive director of Sandhills Theater Arts Renaissance School in Vass, told the school’s board of directors on Thursday night that several years into the experiment, its high school continues to be effectively subsidized by the lower grades.

The school, commonly known as STARS, introduced high school starting in the 2015-2016 school year, reaching grade 12 in 2018-2019.

Despite strong enrollment in kindergarten through eighth grade, STARS’ high school has barely gotten halfway to a self-supporting enrollment level of 200 students. Like traditional public schools, STARS and other charters receive a set amount of state funding for each student they enroll.

Charters can enroll students from anywhere in North Carolina, and counties also contribute to charter funding on an equal per-pupil level as its traditional public schools. About 85 percent of STARS students live in Moore County.

STARS’ most recent high school enrollment count reflects the trend it has always experienced. As of November, there were 41 students in ninth grade, 34 sophomores, 15 juniors and 17 seniors. The lower grades at STARS range from 62 to 78 students.

“Attrition is the issue,” Graner told the board on Thursday. “It’s the issue; attrition after 10th grade, that’s where it occurs.”

After about 20 minutes of discussion, the board voted to approve Graner’s recommendation to close the high school. Current students can opt to continue in a blended virtual format until their scheduled graduation.

Roberta Maness, the board’s vice-chair, was the only dissenting vote.

“I don’t want to think that I’m thinking about this completely with my heart, but my heart is involved,” she said. “I haven’t heard a single child come up here to say ‘You need to close it. I just don’t want to do something that we can’t undo. I’d like to see us revisit this maybe next year.”

The board heard from two current STARS high school students before the vote. Both pleaded for the board to give the high school more time to grow to a sustainable enrollment level.

Senior Averi Martin, who has attended STARS since kindergarten, said that most of her classmates have stayed there because of the small class sizes and tight-knit community.

“Many see STARS as a chance to become more than just a number in a large group of fish. While this close-knit community may seem unsustainable when looked at from a financial standpoint, it must be remembered that the high school was never expected to be sustainable on its own right away,” she said.

“I have been lucky enough to thoroughly enjoy my high school years at STARS, and I would love for the younger students to see the same opportunities. Despite its imperfections, STARS has created and cultivated a welcoming atmosphere that can’t be beat. It has allowed me to grow as a scholar and an artist.”

Graner said that many students leave STARS after eighth or ninth grade to attend Pinecrest or Union Pines — both of which boast award-winning theater programs, along with athletics, clubs, and Advanced Placement classes.

“You heard many folks say they love the small, nurturing nature. That makes the point. That makes the issue,” he said. “Our competitive edge, we’re a performing arts school. We lose a lot, not all, but a lot to Pinecrest and Union Pines. It’s pure competition and they go to the bigger schools where they have more options.”

Even some members of STARS’ board said their children may leave the school when they reach sixth or ninth grade.

“There’s not a lot that we offer when I sit back and think about am I truly setting my child up in high school for true success?” said Andrew Kegley, who has a third grader at STARS.

“I want our kids to be able to truly go into an environment where they have multiple choices to become the best that they can be, and I think we do that really well through eighth grade. I think we do a really good job. I can’t say that right now, at the high school level, we can really do that.”

When asked if the school conducts exit interviews with students who are leaving, Graner said that in many cases STARS doesn't learn that a student has decided to attend another high school until their new school requests their records at the end of the summer.

That’s also well after the school has recruited for the new school year, estimated its class sizes and budgeted accordingly.

“This is a really special place to be, and I feel for everybody in this situation. I feel for the kids, I feel for the families, I feel for the school, I feel for Dr. Graner because if you know him, it’s not an easy decision for him,” said board Chair Erin Jessup.

“As much as I would love for my kids to stay here, I’m like Andrew. I think about the opportunities that they would have in a bigger school setting. I also don’t want to see all the hard work that has gone into the school be lost, so it’s a tough decision.”

Families have argued that the addition of athletics, or better advertising, may attract students to the high school. Graner took over direction of STARS in 2011, when it enrolled just 200 students. He’s since grown it to about 750 students. Construction of new buildings to accommodate the growth wrapped up in 2018.

Graner told the board and parents assembled on Thursday that growth wasn’t achieved by recruiting students into one grade or another, but by convincing existing students to stay on.

He said in a letter to families earlier this month that efforts to market the school — via radio, outreach to Fort Bragg, newspaper coverage of student performances, and in local movie theaters prior to the pandemic — haven’t turned the tides either.

With an average of 14 students for every teacher, the high school loses more than $200,000 each year. So far, STARS has been able to compensate by stretching funding connected to K-8 students. Graner also pointed out that most of the North Carolina charter schools that have failed over the last 20 years have lost their charter due to financial mismanagement.

“The biggest strength is your K-8. That’s what’s paying the bills, and that’s just the truth,” he said. “It’s my job to tell you this is the financial reality you’re facing.”

The board also agreed that, although the high school is phasing out, younger siblings of high school students will still be eligible for preferential treatment in STARS’ enrollment lottery."

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