Former school board critic testifies

Sep. 19, 2013 @ 05:45 PM

School board member Kevin Stewart was sworn in to testify Thursday morning. 

After establishing his background, Board of Education Attorney Richard Schwartz asked Stewart about his political experience and his past criticisms of Union County Public Schools and former superintendent Ed Davis. 

You can say I’m outspoken on a lot of issues, Stewart said. 

Stewart testified that he started endorsing Jonathan Thomas, Jerry Simpson and Todd Johnson during their run for county commissioners in 2010. He said that after speaking with them, he found them to be like-minded and share many philosophies about government. He said he started endorsing them through Facebook, letters to the editor and on the street. 

In 2012, Stewart testified, he started to question UCPS. Stewart questioned them about the teaching assistants being laid off, take-home vehicles and other issues. 

Schwartz asked Stewart how he would characterize his criticisms and Stewart answered blunt, extremely to the point and forceful. 

Schwartz asked Stewart if his letters drew any attention. Stewart testified that around that time he was "basically solicited" by Simpson, Thomas and Johnson to come and speak at a county commissioner's meeting.

Stewart did speak at a commissioner’s meeting. He said that he had some talking points and knew they wanted him to speak last. Stewart said he had to physically cross his name off the sign-in sheet a few times to move to last. Stewart said he was asked to speak to “deflect heat” to the school board and away from the county commissioners. 

Stewart said that he chastised the school board and the commissioners that night and also announced that he would be starting a blog. 

The blog, “Union County Citizens for Teachers,” was paid for and set up by Johnson, Stewart testified that he was to be the face of it. Stewart testified that the blog was a group effort, with some information from other sources and some information coming from the commissioners.

The blog criticized the take-home vehicles for certain workers, a professional development workshop that was held in Orlando, Fla. and the administration. 

When Schwartz asked Stewart if it was fair to say that he was an outspoken critic of the UCPS administration and board, Stewart replied, “That would be putting it kindly, sir.” 

Stewart testified that he would have weekly or every-other-week lunch meetings with Thomas, Johnson, Frank Aikmus and Brian Rogers. Aikmus was not yet a commissioner, and Rogers is the chief operating officer of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate. 

When Schwartz asked Stewart who Rogers is, Stewart described him as basically the “kingpin” of conservatives in Union County. 

Stewart testified that he had been toying with the idea of running for county commissioner, but upon speaking with people, they eventually decided that the school board might be a “better fit” due to his interest in educational issues. 

Schwartz asked if Stewart had been excited to run. 

“No sir, I was very apprehensive, to be honest with you,” Stewart said. 

Stewart said he finally decided to put his money where his mouth was and “take the plunge” by entering the race. 

Stewart ran against incumbent Carolyn Lowder and Chris Lowder for the District 2 seat. It was a tight race, with Stewart winning by 78 votes after a recount. 

Stewart said that Lowder was a formidable incumbent having served for such a long time. However, they analyzed the precincts and thought they would win with a dynamic candidate who could turn out the vote. 

Board of County Commissioners Ligon Bundy objected to Schwartz’s line of questions. The jury was excused so Bundy could explain his objection. 

Bundy said the politics being discussed had “minimal” relevance to the case. 

He said it was opening a “whole new universe” of issues. 

Schwartz said the questioning spoke directly to the credibility of his witness and the motives of the county commissioners, but mostly to the credibility of his witness. 

Judge Erwin Spainhour sustained Bundy’s objection, saying it would delay the trial further. He told Schwartz he could ask about running, but the “underlying” political business was more than the jury could bear. 

“I want to move on,” Spainhour said. He added that he did not want to get into the political undercurrent. 

The jury was brought back into the room and Schwartz asked Stewart about the controversy over the take-home vehicles. 

Stewart continued to testify Thursday. 

On Wednesday, Deputy Superintendent of Building Operations finished his testimony and Chief Technology Officer Tony Burrus testified. 

On Monday, a defense witness, Neill Kimrey, director of digital teaching and learning with North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, testified. Kimrey testified out of order due to scheduling conflicts. 

The trial will continue Monday.