Project Bright Futures remains on course

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 25, 2006

WINDSOR – One strike doesn’t mean you’re out.

Bertie officials learned last week that the county fails to meet the criteria for a “Community Connect” grant they were seeking from USDA Rural Development.

That grant, ranging between $300,000-$600,000, was one of the revenue streams county officials targeted for the proposed Bright Futures project.

The project encompasses building a technology based infrastructure that will connect low-income residents to the information and the tools which will help them improve their lives. It also includes providing each middle and high school student with a laptop computer. In order for that goal to realize its full potential, the second part of the plan must come together, that of offering affordable high-speed internet access to these low-income households.

Last week, Bertie Commissioners Rick Harrell and Norman Cherry Sr. joined with Bertie School Board members Seaton Fairless and Gary Cordon at a meeting with Lewiston-Woodville citizens and officials to discuss the possibility of starting the countywide project in that Bertie town.

Bertie Superintendent Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart, Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb and officials of Perdue Farms, the county’s largest employer located on the outskirts of Lewiston-Woodville, also attended the 90-minute meeting.

Lewiston-Woodville was designated as the starting point due to its rural nature, high poverty level and the lack of access to high-speed internet.

However, as the meeting progressed, it was learned that Lewiston-Woodville can tap into Sprint DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) by using a wireless router to gain high-speed internet access.

While only a handful of Lewiston-Woodville citizens use this technology, the fact of its mere presence made the town ineligible for the USDA grant.

“This new discovery means we fail to meet the Rural Development criteria for the grant,” Patricia Ferguson, Project Manager for Bright Futures, said. “If only one person within a CDP (Census Designated Place, in this case, Lewiston-Woodville) has DSL or access to DSL in the CDP, then it fails to meet the criteria.”

With the USDA funds out of the picture, Ferguson said the group will regroup and move forward.

“What we wanted to do here in Lewiston-Woodville and what we intend to do countywide is not off the table,” Ferguson stressed. “We’re going full speed ahead, only with a new (funding) partner.”

Even before the news was learned that the county did not qualify for the Rural Development grant, Harrell emphasized that if any of the funding sources fell through, that would not deter officials from seeking other revenue.

“We have an opportunity to benefit everyone in Bertie County, an opportunity to turn this county into something special,” Harrell said.

Making reference to the recent string of events that pitted the commissioners against the school board, Harrell said the Bright Futures project was a way to mend those fences.

“I’m sick and tired of all this negative stuff and we’ve had more than our fair share of it recently,” he noted. “It’s time to turn this around and the Bright Futures project is the opportunity for us to do so. It’s time to catapult Bertie County into the future.”

The commissioners and the school board joined together on April 3 in a meeting to hear a proposal from Sonja Murray of One Economy, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit organization interested in guiding Bertie County through the Bright Futures project.

Murray was back in the county last week, attending the meeting with Bertie and Lewiston-Woodville officials. Once again, Murray pointed out that the project is not only an investment into the education of county youth, but an economic development tool as well.

“The technology is out there,” she said. “All you have to do is tap that wide world of knowledge.”

She told the audience to look no further than the success in nearby Greene County where One Economy landed the contract to provide services similar to the proposal in Bertie. Murray said in less than three years, Greene County’s SAT scores were up 41 points; its proficiency in grade level test scores had experienced an increase from 53 percent to 78 percent; there was a 50 percent climb (20 percent to 70 percent) in the number of high school seniors enrolling in college; and there are 12 new businesses in the county.

“We can reach and hopefully even surpass those numbers here in Bertie County,” Murray said. “We can put the tools in place to increase economic activity, attract new businesses and witness a marked improvement in the education process.”

The most critical part of the plan is placing 2,100 laptop computers into the hands of Bertie middle school and high school students. Those same computers can be used at home by the students’ family members, opening up even more doors for learning as well as using this technology to obtain goods and services.

While the project planners continue to seek grant funds, Murray emphasized that local money and commitment was needed to make it all work.

According to Ferguson, the projected cost to cover the county’s major population centers with wireless high-speed internet access is $1.2 million. Covering the entire county comes with a $2.5 million price tag.

Additionally, the county will need an estimated $800,000 annually to provide laptop computers to the students. That price also includes annual upgrades to those computers.