Public appeals school closings

Published 9:05 am Friday, May 1, 2009

CONWAY — Student performance and community livelihood were on the minds of citizens as they voiced concerns about school consolidation and closure.

On Tuesday evening, a crowd of approximately 100 gathered at a public forum held at Conway Middle School concerning the possible reorganization of the Northampton County School District.

Northampton County Board of Education members along with Schools Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy listened to the opinions of seven individuals who expressed concerns over the possible closing of Rich Square W.S. Creecy Elementary School as well as the consolidation of students from Creecy into other area elementary schools located in Jackson and Pendleton.

A public forum concerning the same topic was held Monday evening at Northampton County High School-West for residents in the western part of the county.

In two studies presented to the board on April 9, eight options were offered in reorganizing the district’s schools. All eight of the options recommended the closing of Creecy along with Garysburg Elementary School and the partial or complete closure of Squire Elementary School.

The studies were conducted by the Facility Task Force (a committee of community members) and MBAJ, an independent architectural firm.

Before the speakers were invited to the podium, board members, Dr. Bracy, Assistant Schools Superintendent Phil Matthews and MBAJ representative John Thomas shared with the crowd the current state of the school district, the results of the studies and how the options were formulated by MBAJ and the Facility Task Force.

“The board’s role this evening is to be listeners and not active participants,” said Board Chair Grace Edwards as she opened the forum.

Dr. Bracy gave an overview on why the decision on reorganizing the district is before the board.

Bracy said five years ago the student population of Northampton County Schools was 3,400 in comparison to the current number of 2,500.

Bracy continued by saying that schools are funded by the state according to average daily membership (ADM) or student enrollment.

“The less students we have in our schools, the less funding,” he said.

Because of declining enrollment, the district has had to seek out other sources of funding mainly “soft money,” which is funding that is not guaranteed to occur.

Currently, 81 percent of the schools’ local funding is going to operating costs for the 10 schools in the district.

State cut backs on school funding has also taken its toll on Northampton County Schools.

Board Vice Chair Bill Little informed the crowd the district has already seen a $500,000 reduction in funding and is in line to see yet another $225,000 of slashed funds.

“We are at a junction, a crossroads where have to make a decision and that decision may not be popular with everybody,” he said. “Keep in mind the ultimate goal: we want to provide the best possible education for the children in the county.”

Each citizen that participated in the forum was asked to sign up beforehand if they wished to speak. Each participant had four minutes to state their opinions and concerns.

Andre Rowe spoke of a number of affects he believed would come with the closing of Creecy Elementary.

Rowe said there would be an increase in cost for transportation for parents having to travel further to meet with their children’s teachers.

The long commute for students and the stress of having overcrowded schools were also concerns Rowe addressed.

He pointed out that some of the options allowed facilities to operate over their student capacity and that if the board voted for those recommendations they were voting for overcrowded schools.

“The most important thing is academics,” he said. “How will they (students) perform when their schools are overcrowded?”

Rowe urged the school district to be more viable with other school systems in the area, such as Gaston Prep.

“Be competitive, make people want to come back to Northampton County Schools,” he said.

He also asked the board to check into economic stimulus funds and make a well thought out decision.

Andrew Moore spoke about the conditions of school buildings.

“Creecy always got the backend of everything, (Northampton County High School) East always got the money,” he said.

Moore also agreed with Rowe on student transportation, stating students “get up early enough.”

He said the board had a lot of things to consider and suggested the Northampton County Board of Commissioners should have been involved with the process.

“The commissioners and the Board of Education should have gotten together when the Cultural and Wellness Center was being built,” he said.

Erica Dickens took matters into her own hands and conducted a survey of Rich Square citizens and Creecy Elementary School staff on the possible closure of the school. She presented a collection of names to board members.

“We in the community are very disappointed in hearing of the closing of the school,” said Dickens, who is a Creecy alumna and a mother of a student who now attends the school.

Dickens noted that the community of Rich Square would suffer with the closure of the school. Dickens said if parents we’re traveling to Jackson to pick up their children, they might find it more convenient to get gas or go grocery shopping there instead of at Rich Square-based businesses.

“You can’t take away from one community to benefit another,” she said.

Dickens asked board members to “look at the big picture” and noted her own daughter’s education is at stake.

“I want her to continue to be on that honor roll and keep pushing,” she said.

Anthony Clark said he was there to be an advocate for children.

“The decision is to be done in the best interest of the children,” he said.

Clark noted the problems in nearby Halifax County Schools, which is facing intervention by the state.

He said that there would be some burdens, but, quoting Mohammad Ali, “Even the greatest have to suffer.”

James C. Boone, a former commissioner, recalled a story about telling a county department head “bring us what you need and we’ll fund it.”

Boone said children are our future and they must be prepared for that future.

“You’re not in the funding business, you’re in the spending business,” he said to the board. “Talk to the county commissioners and the county manager.”

Later in an exchange with Edwards, Boone asked the board not to believe the country is in such an economic strain.

Edwards had just noted the economic recession and the slow trickle affect on the local county government, when Boone interjected his comment.

“The country is not broke, don’t endorse that,” he said to Edwards from the audience.

Boone added the federal government was funding a lot of things, including bank and auto bailouts and two wars.

“I agree with you about the bailouts, but until there’s funding…talk to our representatives,” said Edwards.

Angela Ramsey, an alumna of Creecy, said removing the students from the school would be “detrimental.”

“I quite sure children would be scared going to a new school,” she said.

Ramsey also had concerns about the consolidation of the 7th grade into the high school.

“Seventh grade is too young to be going to a high school,” she said.

Elaine Brant also addressed school members about the reorganization of the district.

She referred to a quote President Barack Obama had made recently regarding the importance of parental involvement in schools.

“What will this do to parents who live 12 to 15 miles away and do not have transportation,” she questioned. “Parents need to be more involved.”

Edwards thanked the speakers for their comments. She said all of the topics brought up were ones that the board had discussed in the past.

“We are going to have to make some difficult decisions that not everybody is going to like,” she said.

The Northampton County Board of Education has a special board meeting scheduled for today (Thursday) at 4 p.m. in the Board Room at the Administrative Office in Jackson.