Citizens protest school closings

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 2, 2004

WINDSOR – For the most part, two representatives of the United States Department of Justice (USDJ) sat in silence here Tuesday night.

The same can’t be said for nearly a dozen Bertie County citizens who stood and voiced their concerns over a proposal to close three of the county’s elementary schools in an ongoing effort to appease a federal court order to make Bertie’s public schools a &uot;unified district.&uot;

Those comments came during a public hearing, held in front of a standing room only crowd inside the Bertie County Superior Courtroom. The hearing was scheduled in an effort to allow for a better understanding of why the USDJ and the federal court system are in agreement that the Bertie School System has not fully complied with a 1968 federal order to desegregate its schools.

Michael Crowell, legal counsel for the Bertie Board of Education, explained that the Board had discussed several options in regards to satisfying the court’s compliance order, but it appeared the only option was to close Askewville, Aulander and J.P Law elementary schools.

&uot;The court system has developed this plan,&uot; said Crowell. &uot;You may or may not agree with the plan. The School Board may or may not agree with the plan. But the bottom line is that this federal court order must be satisfied.&uot;

The plan is more complex than simply closing three elementary schools. It all starts with building a new central middle school, which is already in the planning stages. Upon opening, the county’s current middle school, Southwestern, will become an elementary school, taking in students from Askewville, Aulander and West Bertie (another K-5 facility). J.P. Law’s students will move to Colerain and Windsor elementary schools. The majority of Aulander’s students will move to West Bertie.

Additionally, C.G. White Middle School in Powellsville will close. Its students will move to the new central middle school, one planned for construction near Bertie High School.

Crowell pointed out that the school system’s attendance zones would have to be redrawn. He supplied a newly proposed map, one left on display following the meeting.

&uot;All of this will take time,&uot; noted Crowell. &uot;This plan will not affect where students go to the public schools in Bertie County until the 2006-07 school year.&uot;

He continued, &uot;Let’s deal with this just once. Let’s not come back three-to-four years down the road and have to move these students again.&uot;

From a financial standpoint, closing three schools would, according to Crowell, place more money at the Board’s disposal for use on needed capital improvement projects.

&uot;One long-term projection is an estimated $6.5 million that the school system can use on other projects,&uot; Crowell stated. &uot;There’s a savings of $500,000 per year on duplicated upkeep and maintenance costs of these buildings. Then there’s an estimated $2 million price tag on bringing J.P. Law up to current standards.&uot;

The floor was then opened for public comment. The first to speak was former Bertie County Commissioner Elbert Ray Bryant, now a member of the Askewville Town Council.

&uot;I’m here to protect my school,&uot; he said. &uot;We’ve had a plan that has worked here in Bertie County for well over 30 years. Why change it now? You can’t satisfy the bureaucrats. Washington (DC) has no idea what Bertie County needs. What are we doing, satisfying the bureaucrats or making sure our children have the best possible education?&uot;

Crowell answered Bryant by saying, &uot;We’ve offered your same argument – leave things the way they are – to the court. But the judge ruled against that argument. It’s not about satisfying the bureaucrats; it’s about satisfying the court.&uot;

James Pugh blamed the current School Board for not satisfying the court.

&uot;Who’s responsible for carrying out the desegregation order – the School Board,&uot; Pugh asked and answered. &uot;From 1968 until now, somebody’s responsible. That court order is over your heads.&uot;

Pugh then pressed one of the USDJ representatives into answering his next question, &uot;Are there any other counties in the state under a similar order from the court?&uot;

&uot;I’m not going to address cases involving other counties,&uot; replied Kym Rogers, a USDJ attorney.

Board Chairman Gary Cordon did offer an answer by saying, &uot;We’re not the only county in North Carolina dealing with the same situation. Neither are we the only county in the nation dealing with this.&uot;

Michael Williams said closing Askewville Elementary would, &uot;sacrifice the harmony built over the years by whites and blacks (students and parents).&uot;

&uot;I don’t like the fact that the Justice Department wants to come down here and decay the harmony we’ve built,&uot; he stressed. &uot;Another thing I do not like is that it seems we’ve gone from talking about a desegregation issue to talking about closing schools to save money.&uot;

Askewville native Neil Baker also addressed the cost-saving issue.

&uot;Is this only a monetary decision,&uot; he asked. &uot;Money shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to education.&uot;

Additionally, Baker was puzzled why the plan included closing three of the county’s highest achieving schools. (Askewville and Aulander both earned statewide Schools of Distinction honors in 2003-04. One year earlier, J.P. Law was judged as one of the top 25 most improved elementary schools in the state). He pointed out that it was just several years ago where less than 40 percent of Aulander Elementary students met proficiency levels. Now that figure stands at 89 percent.

Although she is about to take an elected seat on the Bertie Board of Education, Melinda Eure spoke as a parent when she asked, &uot;Is this plan etched in stone?&uot;

Crowell replied by saying he doesn’t promise that anything is etched in stone. However, he did say, &uot;There’s not much more that can be done (to save the three schools).&uot;

&uot;We’ll be losing white students because of this,&uot; Eure stated. &uot;I know, I’ve talked to their parents.&uot;

Tamara Foster, a teacher at Aulander Elementary, expressed disappointment in closing that school.

&uot;Will positions be cut because of this,&uot; she asked.

Crowell responded that due to the same number of students being taught countywide, teachers would be retained. However, some of the support personnel would not be needed.

Bobby Harmon stressed that the USDJ should put themselves in the shoes of Bertie citizens.

&uot;What are they saying to our students when they decide to shut down a school after the students worked so hard to improve academically,&uot; Harmon noted.

Cornell Watson urged the School Board to exhaust every measure within their power to save the three elementary schools.

&uot;This is being forced down your throats and our throats,&uot; said Watson. &uot;I think it’s in our best interest to sit down and talk this over before sending this plan (to the court). We’re all neighbors and friends and we’re all in this together.&uot;

Crowell said the USJD was hoping to have a response to the court by the end of December.

&uot;What we would like to see is for the Bertie Board of Education and the Justice Department agree on a plan and present that plan to the court for final approval,&uot; said Crowell. &uot;What we don’t want to see is for this issue to continue to drag out in a court of law.&uot;

Crowell said the Bertie School System could lose its federal funding if it failed to agree on a plan or implement a plan set forth by the court.

In late April of 2003, Terrence W. Boyle, Chief United States District Judge, ruled that Bertie County Public Schools had allegedly failed to fully comply with a desegregation plan set into motion back in 1968. In particular, Judge Boyle ruled that the Bertie public educational system, &uot;continued to operate a racially identifiable white elementary school (Askewville) and failed to develop and adhere to a student transfer policy consistent with its desegregation responsibilities.&uot;

The issue of racial imbalance at Askewville Elementary focused on the Bertie School System’s failure to satisfy its obligation to draw attendance lines, &uot;in such a manner as to eliminate the effects of past racial discrimination and to achieve desegregation.&uot;