Bertie balks at re-locating school

Published 6:40 pm Saturday, February 20, 2010

WINDSOR – Officials in Bertie County are opposing the proposed move of the Bertie Agri-Science school.

The Bertie County Commissioners voted unanimously to oppose the relocation of the school to Washington County. The Bertie County Board of Education are also opposing the move, though no official vote has been taken.

According to Bertie County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chip Zullinger, the current location of the school has been discussed over the past few months and two partners in the school – North Carolina New Schools Project and North Carolina State University have expressed their desire to move the school to the Vernon James Center in Washington County.

“A few months ago it became obvious to me that this program was going to get ramped up big time on the state level,” Dr. Zullinger said. “There have been discussions with the state superintendent, state board chair and governor’s office that this would be a flagship program in North Carolina.”

Dr. Zullinger said the Ag school was the only one included by the state in its “Race to the Top” funding request from the federal government. The concept of a regional school is part of that application.

The superintendent said, simultaneously, the current location of the school – in a wing of the Bertie Preparatory School – has become too small to accommodate the need of the Ag school during the next school year.

Approximately six weeks ago, Dr. Zullinger met with the advisory board for the school. That group includes farmers from Bertie, Chowan, Hertford and Martin counties as well as representatives from the New Schools Project and N.C. State.

“We began discussions in terms of what do we do next as far as space,” Dr. Zullinger said. “I worked with them on space available including the Vernon James site, moving to the C.G. White site and moving to the old J.P. Law site.”

After discussion, it was decided to make the pitch to move the school to the old J.P. Law Elementary School site in Merry Hill.

“My thinking was that it would create a corridor between Avoca Farms (an agricultural research facility near Merry Hill), growth in the area as far as the golf course and the Vernon James Center,” Dr. Zullinger said. “I pitched the idea to the New Schools Project and N.C. State folks and they said no.”

Dr. Zullinger said neither he nor the Bertie County members of the advisory committee want to see the project moved to Washington County.

“We planted it here, we grew it here and we have more students already signed up for next year than can be accommodated,” Dr. Zullinger said. “When you have partners, and particularly when partners that are that powerful, they become the guiding force.”

When the New Schools Project and the North Carolina State Board of Education chair decided to move the school to the Vernon James Center, the idea drew a strong response from officials in Bertie County.

“The actions taken by the commissioners and individual responses of our school board indicates that the Ag school for Bertie County will remain in Bertie County,” Dr. Zullinger said. “We have to learn how to make it work here.”

Monday night, the Bertie County Commissioners unanimously opposed the relocation.

In a statement released on behalf of Commissioner Chairman Norman M. Cherry Sr., the board said they were committed to the school and wanted it to stay in the county.

“The Board voted to express full support for the school remaining in Bertie County,” Cherry said. “The Agricultural/Bio School is a bright star that was a dream of many people here in Bertie County. Many people in Bertie County have worked diligently to make this dream a reality. The school was born in Bertie County, it has grown over the last two years in Bertie County, and we want our innovative school to continue to grow and mature in Bertie County.”

The letter went on to talk about the 40 percent increase in funding the commissioners have provided the school board in the past four years and stressed that part of that funding was partially directed to the Ag school.

The board also stressed that they believe fewer students from Bertie County will participate if the school is moved and stressed their deep commitment to the school.

“We fully support the concept of converting Bertie County’s Agricultural/Bio School into a Northeastern North Carolina regional school, allowing students from surrounding counties to attend Bertie County’s Agricultural/Bio School,” Cherry said. “However, we believe that Bertie County is a more centrally located county than Washington County and would be an excellent location to serve students from Chowan, Gates, Hertford, Martin, Northampton and Washington counties.”

On Friday a meeting was held at the Vernon James Center by Dr. William C. Harrison, chairman of the state board of education, and Tony Habit of the New Schools Project. Dr. Zullinger said the superintendent and board chairman from Bertie, Hertford, Chowan, Washington, Hyde and Martin counties were invited, but that many others from Bertie County attended.

“They laid their cards on the table and said this school is going to be a big deal and a regional school,” Dr. Zullinger said. “They essentially said what they have before and that is the school will move to the Vernon James Center.”

Dr. Zullinger also said at that meeting that Bertie County officials made it clear they would not participate in the move and that they would keep the school in Bertie County.

The ramifications of that decision and the information on the decision by the News Schools Project will be discussed broader in subsequent parts of this series.