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Plan calls for school closings

WINDSOR – It appears the fate of three Bertie County public schools has been sealed.

Following a two-plus hour closed session here Monday night, the Bertie County Board of Education, in a split vote, approved a motion to develop a proposed desegregation plan, one that includes the closing of Askewville, Aulander and J.P. Law elementary schools.

Additionally, the motion, made by former School Board Chairman Rev. Gary Cordon, calls for the construction of a new elementary school with a capacity of 450 students.

Cordon, Gloria Lee and newly elected Board Chairman Seaton Fairless voted in favor of the measure. Melinda Eure and Ricky Freeman cast the no votes.

In a separate motion made by Lee, the board voted without objection to request a meeting with the Bertie Board of Commissioners to discuss the ongoing desegregation litigation with the United States Department of Justice and to discuss funding options available for the desegregation plan currently under development by the Board of Education.

The plan adopted through Cordon’s motion closely mirrors one of the options presented Nov. 8 in the Bertie High School gym by two representatives of Heery International, P.C.

who publicly released their findings of a school facilities assessment.

Listed among their four options was a recommendation n closing Askewville, Aulander and J.P Law elementary schools as well as shutting down Southwestern Middle School and constructing a new elementary school. That suggestion also included extensive upgrades to the three remaining elementary schools in the system n Colerain, West Bertie and Windsor.

The overall price tag was estimated at $31.8 million, which included $13 million for the new elementary school.

In Cordon’s motion, there was no language concerning the upgrades to the remaining elementary schools nor was there mention of the price of a new elementary school.

All of this came on the heels of what can best be described as a spirited public input session. There, Bertie County citizens, who filled the meeting area to standing-room only status with others spilling out into an adjoining hallway, spent approximately one hour pleading with the Board of Education not to close any schools.

“New buildings are not the answer,” Kelly Dilday, a concerned citizen, said. “The answer is internal starting with the (school system’s) administration, staff and faculty. We need an internal fix.”

Dilday added that he had seen, first hand, a gradual decline of the school system. He cited instances of uncontrollable students and teachers losing interest.

“I was there; I saw it first-hand,” he said.

Kelvin Outlaw also questioned the need for bigger schools.

“Will bigger buildings better educate our children,” Outlaw inquired. “I see smaller schools better educating our children.”

Outlaw then posed another question, “Are we taking care of our children or are we satisfying one group?”

He added, “We will be monitoring what you (School Board) are doing.”

John Stallings informed the Board that he had three children graduate from Bertie High School and all are now very successful in their chosen careers.

“There’s nothing wrong with Bertie County Schools that a little money put in our classrooms won’t fix,” Stallings said.

With the closing of three schools looming, Kendra Williams inquired about the possibility of additional travel time in buses for students, especially younger children.

“Have you considered the impact of busing our children halfway across the county,” she asked.

Thelma Sutton praised the achievements made by students and staff at J.P. Law Elementary. She said the small school was a perfect fit for the equally small community of Merry Hill and said the school was a place where students were able to learn.

Stan White offered this suggestion n “If we’re to spend $35 million to make our children smarter, then why not spend $70 million and make them twice as smart. How much will it cost to produce a genius?”

White went on to say that Bertie was a poor, rural county and he could not afford any tax increases to pay for a proposed new school.

“Let’s fix up what we’ve got,” he suggested. “Give me a paint brush or a bucket of Mr. Clean and I’ll help.”

Another supporter of J.P. Law, Tonya Freeman, said it was a good school with hard-working teachers.

“My child is at J.P. Law and I don’t have to worry that she’s not getting a good education,” Freeman noted.

Citing several original buildings (circa 1789) still in use on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, Wood Farless said older buildings can still serve a purpose as long as they are well-maintained.

“Something is wrong in Bertie County,” Farless said. “The discrimination lies with the Board of Education not providing our children with a safe learning environment.”

Meredith White spoke in favor of keeping Askewville Elementary School open. He told the board that he and other Askewville residents were very concerned over the issue.

According to remarks made by Norman Perry Jr., throwing money at the problem will not solve the problem.

“Everybody wants a better education for the children of this county,” Perry said. “I think the people should vote on this issue rather than letting a judge tell us how to spend our money.”

As the mother of a five-year-old child just starting its educational journey, Jamie Harmon said she didn’t want her youngster attending a large school at that early age.

“I do not believe in closing small community schools,” she said. “Let’s do what’s best for our children and do what’s best for Bertie County.”

Fairless closed the public input session as questions began to fly from different corners of the room in regards to desegregation issues and the status of facilities at Askewville and J.P. Law.