Northampton HS shifting west?

Published 7:31 am Thursday, June 6, 2013

JACKSON – The Northampton County Board of Education is moving forward with the possibility of restructuring schools within the district and that may include the closure of schools.

On Monday, the board voted by majority to move forward with the process and contract with a company for a $13,000 feasibility study.

Next week the board has scheduled three meetings, including two public hearings on either end of the county as well as a Saturday meeting scheduled in two weeks.

The schedule is as follows:

Tuesday, June 11 at 4 p.m.-the school board will receive an updated briefing on the feasibility study in the boardroom at Northampton County Schools Central Office.

Wednesday, June 12 at 6:30 p.m.-a public hearing will be held for the eastern end of the county at Conway Middle School.

Thursday, June 13 at 6:30 p.m. –a public hearing will be held for the western end of the county at Gaston Middle School.

Saturday, June 22 at 10 a.m. – the board will meet to make their final decision in the boardroom at the Central Office. They will also complete Schools Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy’s evaluation.

At their May 6 meeting, the board decided to move forward with the statutory process of restructuring, which could include the closure of Northampton County High School, Willis Hare Elementary, Squire Elementary School and Northampton Alternative.

Before the board’s decision, Board Vice Chair Erica Smith-Ingram said the next step would be to confirm and update the feasibility study.

Ingram had her fellow board members take out their calendars and look at them to confirm dates on the timeline.

During discussion, Ingram suggested teachers begin boxing up items, specifically at the high school and Gaston Middle School.

“We have not made a decision,” said Board member Rhonda Taylor. “So why are you going to get everyone to (pack up)?”

“Because we want to be prepared at any rate,” responded Ingram. “Prior times in the past when we have done interior painting in the buildings or washed the walls down we have asked the teachers to box up their things and make sure everything is labeled.”

She continued by saying, “If there is a move, we would want the staff to be able to pack up their classrooms so that boxes can be moved just as what was done in the past. …What we’re trying to do is be proactive and be prepared. There has been a lot of discussion as to what this could include and those schools that could be affected could be the high school and the middle school in particular.”

Ingram added nothing would be moved until a decision is made.

Taylor said she wasn’t sure if the decision had been made if the board wanted to move forward.

“The decision has already been made at the May 3rd board meeting,” said Ingram.

“It’s been made to do a study,” Taylor responded.

Ingram reiterated the May 3rd decision, including that the statutory process could result in the closure of Squire, Willis Hare, the high school or Gaston Middle. She added the process required the board to do a study, hold hearings and look at various demographics.

“This is a statutory process, it passed on a unanimous vote so regardless of how people feel on this night, I’m going to call for this chair for the Board to implement those action items that were ratified in the previous meeting,” Ingram said. “We must have follow through.”

Ingram then moved to put a motion on the floor that the board continue to move with the statutory process as ratified at the May regularly scheduled board meeting and listed the various dates for the two meetings and public hearings.

Board member Clinton Williams offered a second to Ingram’s motion.

Following the motion being placed on the floor, Board member Phil Matthews said he agreed at the May meeting the board did approve to move forward with the process, however, it was not a unanimous vote.

“It was a split decision, three to three (with Chair Kelvin Edwards as the tie breaker), not unanimous,” he said.

Matthews said he was fine with the schedule, but he wanted more time between the study being presented and the hearings to educate the public.

“If you could move the (meeting scheduled for the) 11th up a bit it could give it a little more time for the public to know whether or not to come to the meetings,” he said.

Taylor noted a study might not be prepared earlier than June 11.

“My only concern is you’re telling these teachers and principals to box up everything at Willis Hare, the high school, at the middle school, at Squire Elementary,” she said.

Ingram corrected Taylor saying she had said the high school and middle school.

“We’re looking at all four schools,” said Taylor. “So really we’re not looking at all four—we’re just looking at the high school basically. Correct?”

Ingram said she would respond when it was her turn.

“I thought we were here doing a feasibility study on all four schools, but apparently it’s clear that we’re not,” said Taylor. “We’re just looking at the high school and that middle school. That’s all we’re looking at here.”

She continued by saying, “I guess our question should not be about all four schools. We need to talk about the schools that everybody has on their mind because you’re wasting our time and you’re wasting their time (staff). We’ve got principals out there who are at Willis Hare. If we’re not going to mess with Willis Hare then she (the principal) shouldn’t have to worry about it. But we need to lay our cards on the table.”

Ingram said when board started out in the fall they agreed to be a board that listens to the constituents and be transparent.

“Thank you Ms. Taylor for opening up the door,” Ingram said.

She acknowledged Matthews concerns about the timeline.

“What the community needs to see is a board that is not stalling, a board that can make a decision that’s in the best interest of the community, best interest of the children, the best interest of being good stewards of their taxpaying, hardworking dollars,” she said.

Ingram continued, “I want to put this on the floor because this just did not come up in May. This came up in fall where you Ms. Taylor had concerns and your comment was, ‘I talk about the same problems at the high school, but when I say something about the condition of the school nobody listens to me’. And know people what to talk about it.”

Ingram said in September after the high school was renovated and opened she went out to the school and saw a mold issue.

“Board members went the next day and confirmed there was a mold issue and mold problem,” she said. “Dr. Bracy has gotten a company to come in and do air quality this and air quality that and that’s not to mention that we have students that are getting ill, some students that have been homebound. …We have staff members who have not felt the best and have started to experience some things.”

Ingram mentioned the violence at Sandy Hook Elementary and that Northampton students should be in the safest designed possible.

“We tried putting the high school in that place and some things have developed, there’s some other issues—potential heath care issues that could be very significant,” she said. “We need to move those students away from that building. It’s not safe. It’s not the best facility we have for those students.”

She continued by saying, “You know that the county is facing a tough budget crisis. They’re going to have to cut departments. We don’t have a money tree in Northampton County. We don’t have industries coming in at the level we need them to come in to generate more revenue.”

Ingram noted a plan by the Northampton County Board of Commissioners presented in November.

“We were tasked with going back and configuring our schools, optimizing the utilization and so moving forward we have been put on notice since September and October that we need to do something. But yet this Chair has sent out emails upon emails to get us to schedule a meeting and there were board members at this table that did not respond to the email and for three weeks could not make themselves available so that we could make a final decision on June 3. It was atrocious.”

Ingram said the high school is “not the safest structure, we are interested, and I believe if we called for the vote tonight it would be the majority of the board that wants to move the high school.”

“That move of the high school will cause a grade shifting or reconfiguration of our middle schools and our elementary schools,” Ingram said. “The feasibility of it I don’t think we can do anything with our elementary schools this year. …We need to do something to bring this county together. If we’re going to bus high school students from the eastern end to the western end then the fairest thing to me is to bus the middle school kids from the western end to the eastern end. And we have one high school and one middle school to feed and we get to the point utilizing where our best four facilities that are efficient and we put aside the money we need so we can build a brand new school, whatever that school would be. We cannot do it without a plan so let’s stop this stalling.”

Taylor said there were five plans the board was supposed to look at but did not. She added when she receives an email she responds to who she’s asked to respond to and not to every board member.

“The same students that you say are sick at the high school here, we had a hearing and we asked the principal who was at (then Northampton County High School-West) and we asked the staff for a list of people who are sick,” Taylor said. “Those same people are sick over here at this high school. You’ve got to realize people are going to get sick.”

She continued by saying, “We are so quick to rush and make decisions instead of sitting down, analyzing things, getting the best study, the best feasibility study that we can get. …We’re rushing. We’re rushing into everything because one person says let’s rush. I have a problem with that. …I know you speak for people, but I speak for people too. This community is split and we need to look at everything.”

After further discussion, the board decided in a 4-3 vote to contract with SFL+a on a $13,000 feasibility study. The vote was originally split with Clinton Williams, Ingram and Marjorie Edwards voting for the motion and Phil Matthews, Taylor and Donald Johnson voicing opposition. The motion passed following Board Chair Kelvin Edwards breaking the tie.

Kelvin Edwards stressed following motion that the board’s action did not mean schools were going to close and that a decision on that has not been made yet.