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Bertie group begins effort to keep schools open

WINDSOR – An SOS is an audible signal from someone in distress. That signal was heard loud and clear here last week.

During a Jan. 5 meeting at the Council on Aging Building, approximately 200 Bertie County citizens turned out in an effort to save three public schools from closing.

In ongoing litigation to appease a federal court order regarding a long-standing desegregation case against the Bertie Public School System, the county’s Board of Education has forwarded two options to the U.S. Department of Justice. Included in option one is to close Askewville and J.P. Law elementary schools. Aulander Elementary is added to the closure list in option two.

Now, a group calling themselves Community Schools n SOS is gathering momentum to make the federal courts aware that a majority of Bertie County citizens are opposed to the School Board’s recommendations.

“We are hoping to make the federal court aware of the time needed to overcome a renegade Board of Education’s wishes to close the three best performing elementary schools in the county,” John Davis, a spokesman for SOS, said in a press release following the 90-minute meeting.

He continued, “Public pleadings to keep these community schools open were overwhelming at two recent public meetings. The county commissioners are also on record that funds can be provided for the facility upgrades needed. In spite of the citizen’s desires to keep the community schools open, by a vote of 3-2, the (School) Board is recommending to the Department of Justice the schools be closed as a way to end a 37-year-old desegregation case.”

The organizational focus of the meeting was how the citizens could make their desires known to federal officials.

“At present it is doubtful that either the Board of Education lawyers or the Department of Justice lawyers will make the court aware of how much the citizens and Bertie County Commissioners want to close the desegregation case without losing their community schools,” Davis said. “The court is in an unfair position since it may make a decision without knowing the true desires of Bertie citizens. The citizens desire to close the desegregation case without closing their three best schools.”

In order to get the message to the court and to the Department of Justice, SOS has undertaken an effort to gain 4,000 signatures on a petition to show the degree to which the Board of Education is ignoring the wishes of the majority of the citizens. Approximately 100 citizens volunteered last week to help carry out that effort, one that also includes a letter-writing campaign to the Department of Justice asking them to not close the three community elementary schools in question.

“The citizens are hopeful the court will hear of our dilemma and allow us the time to collect these signatures,” Davis said. “It may take until May to accomplish this task.”

Davis said the group is also exploring how to fund a lawsuit to represent the desires of the citizens, since the elected Board of Education refuses to do so.

“I’ve not been able to find one person that wants to close these three schools,” Davis said during Thursday’s meeting. “This is not a black-white issue. This is not a political issue. This is a policy issue. This is all about controlling our educational process and doing what’s best for our children.”

Joe Avery, former Education Chairman for the Johnston County NAACP, spoke to Thursday’s gathering. He told of a similar situation in his county, one that eventually evolved into the formation of a grassroots group similar to Bertie SOS.

“We took them (Johnston County Board of Education) to court,” Avery said. “Their attitude sure did change when they received a subpoena to appear in federal court. It was then they wanted to know what they could do for us.”

Avery continued, “We made it happen in Johnston County, just regular, ordinary people. You too can make a change here in Bertie County, a change for the better.”

Another guest speaker, Lindalyn Kakadelis, the head of the NC Educational Alliance, encouraged all Bertie citizens to become involved, no matter if they did or did not have a child enrolled in the public school system.

She pointed to the disparity between the state and county averages in education. She said the statewide average for students performing at grade level was 79.9 percent, adding that Bertie’s average was 68.6 percent. Kakadelis said that 81.3 percent of Bertie’s white students were listed as proficient in their studies, but that number dropped to 66.7 percent for children of color. She also pointed out that only 53.4 percent of Bertie High School students were performing at grade level, compared to a statewide average of 78.4 percent. She added that Bertie’s average SAT score was 802 while the statewide average was 1,010.

“You have these gaps and your School Board is suggesting to close three of your highest performing schools,” Kakadelis quizzed. “Does anyone care about your children?”

Kakadelis encouraged the group to stop accepting excuses from their School Board.

“They need to focus on the low-performing schools, not spend their time finding ways to close high-performing schools,” she noted. “The children of Bertie County are not dumb. This school system needs to come out of its box and do whatever it takes to educate the children.”

Kakadelis suggested merit pay for the teachers.

“Teachers, not bricks, produce student achievement,” Kakadelis said to a rousing ovation. “Closing these schools does not make logical sense. Bigger is not better.”

The next meeting of Community Schools SOS is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, January 19 at the Bertie Council of Aging Building.