Study details problems at Willis Hare

Published 4:39 pm Tuesday, June 14, 2022

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JACKSON – It appears that the Northampton County Board of Education is leaning towards a decision to close the oldest public school in its district.

However, before they do so, the board will conduct a public hearing at 6 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday) at Conway Middle School for the purpose of allowing local citizens to voice their opinion regarding the possible closure of Willis Hare Elementary School in Pendleton.

The public hearing is part of several steps the board is required to take in their discussions about Willis Hare, which has been in operation since 1957 and is currently experiencing numerous health and safety issues along with a declining student enrollment.

The board, at a special called meeting on June 6, took the first step in that process by authorizing a School Closing Study. The next step was the presentation of that study, which came on Monday of this week during the board’s regularly scheduled meeting in Jackson. There, Phil Matthews, who serves as a temporary special assistant to Interim Superintendent Dr. Del Burns, presented the report.

Matthews highlighted the main points found in the 13-page report, noting that Willis Hare, as of the most current school year, served 229 students (Pre-K through 5th grade). The capacity of the school is 425 students, but the entirety of its educational space is not currently utilized due to lower enrollment numbers and the fact that some of its classrooms are not used because of age and environmental issues.

The newest building on the campus was opened in 2004 and was constructed to serve Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten and first grade specifically.

The multipurpose building was constructed in 1991 to replace the gym that was destroyed by a tornado in 1988.

The cafeteria building was opened in 1969 and the main school building opened in 1957.

The current HVAC system was installed in 1998 and is at the end of its life expectancy. The outside play equipment has exceeded its life expectancy and is in need of replacement.

The report noted that some maintenance and environmental issues at Willis Hare will require immediate attention and considerable financial resources. Even if the immediate needs are met, expensive capital, maintenance and environmental needs will continue to exist for future years.

Furthermore, Matthews said Willis Hare is “the most isolated school facility we have in the school district.” He added that due to the Willis Hare campus having five separate buildings, they present an “obstacle to keeping the student safe as there are many entry and exit points to each building.”

A chart in the study report showed a steady decline in the average daily membership [enrollment] numbers for grades Pre-K through 8 for students living in the eastern end of the county. Those numbers were for six consecutive school years and a projection for the 2022-23 school year.

“If you do the math on those numbers, you can see that over the six-year period in the eastern end of our county, in grades Pre-K through8 there has been a decrease of over 300 students,” Matthews observed.

The report included recurring operational costs to keep the doors open at Willis Hare. That figure for 2021-22 was $318,422 to cover facility operation (utilities and supplies) and personnel costs.

“If Willis Hare does close, we can relocate the personnel. There are other spots in our school system, so no one should lose employment. There is no plan for a reduction in [labor] force,” Matthews explained.

Additionally, transportation can be reduced by two buses, which would eliminate 200 travel miles per day.

Addressing the facility needs at Willis Hare, Matthews said there is no HVAC in the hallways or common areas of the building, creating air quality issues in those areas. There is an ongoing condensation problem with the air conditioning piping causing constant leaking.

Matthews said the newest roof on a building at Willis Hare is 19 years old. The main building and the cafeteria building need new windows and doors throughout.

The media center, he says, floods during heavy rain. Many efforts to remedy this problem have taken place over the years yet the problem still exists. It is not unusual for the floor covering in this building to be damaged by water to the point that it is required to be replaced. The indoor air quality is affected by this moisture.

The entire school is in need of interior and exterior painting.

Wastewater drains in the main building and cafeteria building have deteriorated to the point of requiring constant maintenance attention to keep them operating. These drains

need to be replaced. Eight sinks and several painted areas contain lead and will require immediate and expensive remediation.

“It is estimated to do the things I just spelled out will take about 3 million dollars to get those buildings up to the standards of where they need to be,” Matthews noted.

His study also addressed the inconvenience and hardships caused by the extra travel time for students to attend other schools in the event a decision is made to close Willis Hare. Matthews said the greatest inconvenience is with the youngest students (157 in number). Approximately half of these students (84) live as close to Central Elementary (in Jackson) as they do to Willis Hare, so distance and travel isn’t viewed as an inconvenience or hardship for these

students. This leaves approximately 73 students that could consider distance and travel as an inconvenience.

The study recommended that all pre-kindergarten through third grade students in the eastern part of the school system to attend Central Elementary School, which has a capacity of 333 students. The projected enrollment there, which takes into consideration the closure of Willis Hare, would be 292 students.

It also recommends for all fourth through eighth grade students in the eastern part of the school system to attend Conway Middle School. That school has a capacity of 535 students, therefore it can accommodate the 306 fourth through eighth grade students projected for enrollment during the 2022-23 school year.

“This plan accommodates and meets all the educational needs of all the students in the newest, most modern and safest environment the school system can provide at this time,” Matthews stated.

Upon the completion of the report, members of the school board discussed the issues/problems, to include the health and safety of the children at Willis Hare. One member labeled Willis Hare as a “dangerous environment.”

The majority of the school board members making remarks were of the opinion that Willis Hare needs to be closed.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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