Bertie Ed Board debates audit findings

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 30, 2005

WINDSOR – It what could be best described as a highly spirited debate, members of the Bertie County Board of Education finally agreed here yesterday (Friday) morning on how to proceed in regards to a recent audit of the school system.

Sparks flew during intervals of the meeting, all fueled by a letter to the editor of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald (one also published in a Bertie weekly paper). That letter, co-authored by Bertie School Board members Rickey Freeman and Melinda Eure, took on a sense of &uot;damage control.&uot; They felt the school system was damaged by the reaction of Superintendent John F. Smith Sr. and his subordinates in their attacks against the Bertie County Commissioners, the group responsible for ordering the $50,000 audit.

Freeman and Eure further challenged the leadership of the Bertie Board of Education to display leadership.

The School Board’s leader, Rev. Gary Cordon, took the letter as a personal attack on his abilities.

&uot;I wish you would have called me (to discuss the issue) rather than writing a letter to the newspapers,&uot; Cordon said, addressing Freeman in particular. &uot;It appears to me you have a conflict of interest in this issue (apparently making reference to Freeman’s job as Bertie’s Emergency Management Coordinator, an entity, like the school system, that receives county funds). I think you should excuse yourself from our budget making process.&uot;

&uot;I did call you and you told me I had the right to voice my concerns,&uot; Freeman answered. &uot;I do not appreciate your comment concerning me having a conflict of interest. I am a man of integrity.&uot;

&uot;I didn’t appreciate the letter,&uot; Cordon replied.

Eure chimed in by saying, &uot;I don’t have a conflict of interest. My only interest is to the schoolchildren of Bertie County and to those who want me to do what’s best for our school system.&uot;

Seaton Fairless, the Board’s senior member, said he felt the letter was a matter of bad timing.

&uot;The public perceives us as divided,&uot; Fairless noted. &uot;We seem to want to reach the same goal, but it seems we’re taking different paths to get there. As we continue in our discussions concerning the recommendations revealed in the audit, those on the losing side of an issue do not need to go into the community and stir things up.&uot;

&uot;Let’s do this in a professional manner, not from emotion,&uot; Board member Gloria Lee offered. &uot;If this study was important enough to spend $50,000 to complete, then it’s important enough for us to ask for help to get this job done right.&uot;

Earlier in the meeting, Fairless mentioned the possibility of soliciting help from an outside source – someone, in his words, &uot;without a stake in Bertie County&uot; – to help guide the Board members and school administrators as they closely study each of the 33 recommendations made in the audit.

&uot;We need to make decisions that benefit student achievement,&uot; Fairless stressed. &uot;Then we can meet with the Commissioners and work this thing out together.&uot;

Meanwhile, Cordon and Freeman spent the earlier portion of the debate sparring over the timetable of reviewing the audit’s recommendations. Freeman wished to move immediately forward while Cordon used a more cautious approach.

However, the audit’s proposed changes for 2005-06, if approved by the Board, are to be in place by July of this year. Over the next five years, auditors estimate a savings of $7.7 million if all of their recommendations are approved.

All Board members agreed that deadline was impossible to meet. A consensus of the board first wanted the County Commissioners to approve the findings of the audit and even allow that body of county government to go as far as offering what recommendations should first be addressed.

Superintendent Smith suggested the Board conduct a special called meeting to further discuss the audit. He also wanted approval from the Board that the school system’s budget for 2005-06 is presented to the Commissioners using the same process as in previous years.

&uot;There’s no way to build in the recommendations of the audit for the upcoming budget year and present it, as asked, to the County Commissioners by May 9,&uot; said Smith.

Eure offered a motion based on Smith’s suggestions and the ensuing vote carried 5-0.

Lee then offered another motion, this one asking the County Commissioners to approve the audit. It too passed by a 5-0 vote.

Prior to going into a closed session, Cordon apologized to Freeman in regards to his earlier comments.

&uot;The letter in the papers just caught me off guard,&uot; Cordon concluded. &uot;I felt betrayed by it, but please accept my apology. We will move forward on this.&uot;