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SOS group passes midway point on petition drive

WINDSOR – The fight continues to save three Bertie County elementary schools from closing.

A grassroots organization n Community Schools SOS n held another meeting here last Thursday where the group’s leadership provided the latest information on the efforts to save Askewville, Aulander and J.P. Law elementary schools.

To date, the SOS campaign has gathered 2,221 signatures on a petition and has mailed over 100 letters to Department of Justice (DOJ) officials, both in an effort to keep the three schools open. SOS officials say they need 4,000 names on the petition.

John Davis, one of the SOS organizers, said the petition and the letters were an effort to inform federal officials that the majority of Bertie County citizens disagree with a decision by the Bertie Board of Education to close the three schools as part of its desegregation plan submitted late last month to the DOJ.

Davis said federal officials are in an unfair position since they may make a decision without knowing the true desires of Bertie citizens. He added that the citizens desired to close the desegregation case without closing their three best schools.

“The (federal) judge has until March 1 to make a decision, but it may come earlier,” Davis said. “I think our Board of Education hopes the judge will rule on this tomorrow because they can hear us coming.”

SOS organizers may also use another ploy to attract the court’s attention. Davis suggested “a friend of the court” program.

A friend of the court is a third party, not involved in the lawsuit, who hires a lawyer to provide significant information to the court that could impact the outcome of the case. The third party files a brief because they do not believe the court will see the missing data in any other way.

At last week’s SOS meeting, Bertie citizens learned the best friend of the court they could hope for are the Bertie County Commissioners.

“They have the financial ability to assume this role and they would have strong credibility in the courts eyes,” Davis said.

All SOS members and all citizens are asked to contact their County Commissioner and urge them to call a special meeting to approve allowing the county attorney to file a friend of the court brief on behalf of the children and citizens of Bertie County.

Meanwhile, Mike Williams, another SOS organizer, said small schools contribute to the quality of education. He added that by losing small schools such as Askewville, Aulander and J.P. Law, more parents in Bertie County may pull their children out of the public school system and look for other educational opportunities.

“We will stand for our smaller schools to the bitter end,” Williams said.

Another one of the group’s organizers, Kelvin Outlaw, accused the School Board of taking three schools that are not broke and trying to fix other problems within the Bertie school system. He said the School Board has issues at the high school as well as issues with overcrowding at other elementary schools.

“But yet they’re not talking about those issues,” Outlaw said. “Rather, they want to close our three best-performing schools.”

Without small, community schools, Outlaw said he felt young students would be left without the proper tools to prepare themselves for the future.

“We have to provide the tools for our young students so they will be educationally prepared to take the next step to the middle school and then to the high school and then beyond for what they want to do after that level,” Outlaw noted. “It all starts by providing those early learning tools at small schools. Shame on us if can’t provide those tools.”

Davis alleged the School Board continues to change its story. At the outset, he said the School Board was informing the public that the Department of Justice was making Bertie officials close the schools. Then it was a poor facilities issue followed by lack of funds to keep the doors open at the three schools.

“The three schools they plan to close are not ready for the ash pile,” Davis insisted.

As far as the money issue was concerned, Davis said a bloated central office and wasting money to construct a teacher’s rental house, money he said the School Board never approved, led the local school system not being able to get, in his words, “the most bang for our bucks.”

He also said there is a conflict between the recent Heery report (a facilities assessment of Bertie schools) and the August 2004 report by the DOJ desegregation consultant.

Davis said the DOJ consultant told the court that the historically black school at J.P. Law was in much poorer shape than the historically white school in Askewville. In fact, he said, the DOJ consultant touted the great condition of the Askewville facility.

According to Davis, this was the Department of Justice’s proof that Bertie County had discriminated through facilities. However, the independent Heery study pointed out that Askewville is in worse shape than J.P. Law, thus, according to Davis, disproving the DOJ facility discrimination allegations about Askewville.

“In fact, both schools are in acceptable condition and, with ongoing maintenance, have many teaching years ahead of them,” Davis said in a press release sent on Monday morning. “Why has the attorney for the Bertie Board of Education not pointed this out to the court? Why do they allow us to look guilty when we are not? Today, there is no longer a dual school system being operated in Bertie County. We should be granted unitary status now.”

Davis added that leadership is needed at the top level of the Bertie County educational process.

“I’m not talking about our new superintendent; she hasn’t been here long enough to make a difference,” Davis said. “I’m talking about the Board of Education, this one and the ones previously.”

Community Schools n SOS will continue to meet every two weeks at the Bertie Council on Aging building in Windsor. Their next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 2.