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Bertie citizens denounce Board’s decision

WINDSOR – As Bertie County officials discuss the future of its public school system, they know one thing for certain n the public favors keeping small, community schools open.

The citizens of Bertie County had their say here Monday afternoon during a joint meeting between the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education. That meeting was arranged in order for the Commissioners to receive an update on the steps the School Board is taking to satisfy a federal court order pertaining to a desegregation plan.

Following a detailed explanation of the desegregation history of Bertie schools, as presented by School Board attorney Carolyn Waller, the Commissioners, speaking through their board attorney Lloyd Smith, were inquisitive over where the money would come from if the federal court approves the second of two options approved last week by the School Board.

That option stated if funding becomes available by the end of the 2006-07 school year, to close Aulander, John P. Law and Askewville elementary schools at the close of the 2008-09 school year and construct a new elementary school with a capacity of 450 students and to open that school at the start of the 2009-2010 school year.

While a price for the new school was not included in the option, it is estimated at $13 million. The Commissioners just recently borrowed $6 million for construction of a new middle school. They have high hopes of using the next round of state school bond money to build a new high school.

Option one of the School Board’s proposal would close J.P. Law and Askewville by the end of the 2006-07 school year.

“Why even put option two in the proposal (to the court) when option one will satisfy the court order,” Smith quizzed. “If we do proceed to option two, then we need to talk about the funding options. The county doesn’t want its hands tied with this funding. We were hoping to build a new high school.”

School Board attorney Rod Malone responded by saying option two not only keeps the schools open for a longer period of time, it also gives the two boards more time to discuss funding options.

“If we commit to option one, then we would need the funds almost immediately,” Malone noted. “We are negotiating a dual option with the Department of Justice. We need to work with you (commissioners) to resolve this.”

Waller added the School Board believes the court will not object to a plan to close three schools and build a new elementary facility. She said the top priority is satisfying the court order regarding an acceptable desegregation plan, thus allowing Bertie Public Schools to gain unitary status.

The public then had its say on the issue.

John Davis made reference to a recent facilities study of Bertie’s elementary schools. His opinion was that the report was flawed and it should not be accepted “as gospel.”

“I would like to understand the specifics behind the J.P. Law facilities report,” Davis said. “I went there; it’s better than any elementary school I ever attended.”

Chris Freeman stated he did not care for either option.

“Community schools are better,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of having to bus our children all across the county.”

Jamie Harmon asked the School Board to consider a third option.

“Why can’t you look at the issue of spending taxpayer’s money to fix the facility at J.P. Law and further tweak the attendance lines at Askewville to allow for more minority students,” she asked. “It’s clear to me that the citizens want to keep these community schools open.”

To that, Waller answered, “The (School) Board has looked at all options and has come-up with two.”

Rick Harrell, chairman of the Bertie Commissioners, interjected, “I think what she is asking are these the only two options.”

“They are the only two we are presenting to the Department of Justice,” Waller answered.

Aulander Town Commissioner Henry Spruill said he felt Aulander Elementary School is being used as a pawn in the options.

“You’re saying that if you don’t close two schools, then you’ll close three,” he said. “You’re using Aulander as a pawn in this. I’m opposed to closing Aulander Elementary.”

Marsha Smithwick was stern in her remarks to the School Board.

“You are doing a disservice to the people you serve by closing these community schools,” she said.

Betty White, a retired school teacher who served 42 years, echoed Smithwick’s remarks about community schools.

“A while back, everybody went wild over the idea of consolidating schools,” White noted. “I think education is better within a smaller school. Think about the students, not the building.”

Speaking on behalf of Bertie County Farm Bureau, Wood Farless urged the School Board to pursue a course of action that does not unduly burden landowners with additional property taxes.

“Most of our farmers are already operating on a very thin margin,” Farless said. “A large increase in property tax would be a disaster to small and large landowners in Bertie County and certainly would be a negative for getting any industry or developments to come here.”

Farless continued, “Farm Bureau supports the best education for our children that the county citizens determine they can afford. However, we believe this should be done through representative democracy. We oppose an unelected judge ordering what he perceives we should be able to afford.”

Windsor Mayor Bob Spivey agreed with the consensus of a third option.

“If you will not consider another option, then why are we here,” Spivey inquired. “I think you should tweak the Askewville attendance lines and bring J.P. Law up to par.”

Cecil Davis aimed his remarks towards the School Board attorneys.

“It appears every time we make a comment, you (attorneys) laugh. I don’t think it’s funny,” Davis said and then left the meeting.

The School Board has until Jan. 15, 2006 to submit its desegregation plan and options to the federal court.