School Board closes Willis Hare

Published 6:09 pm Friday, June 17, 2022

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CONWAY – Northampton County’s oldest public school will permanently close for the purpose of elementary education.

Following a public hearing here Thursday evening, the Northampton County Board of Education voted to close Willis Hare Elementary School as well as approving a measure that will impact all public school students residing in the eastern half of the county.

The public hearing was held at Conway Middle School.

Willis Hare, located near Pendleton in the northeastern corner of the county, first opened in 1957. The age of the facility, numerous safety and environmental health issues, and declining student enrollment were the main factors behind the decision to close the school.

That vote was 5-1 in favor of the closure. Tony Burnette was the lone board member opposing the measure.

With Willis Hare closed, a decision had to be reached as to where to assign its students. Prior to its closing, Willis Hare served Pre-K through 5th grade students.

At a special called meeting on Monday of this week, the school board members were advised in advance that should they decide to close Willis Hare, a student reassignment plan was in place that would impact all Pre-K – 8th grade students living in the eastern half of the county. That plan took into account a six-year study that showed the number of school-age students residing in the eastern half of the county was steadily declining.

On Thursday, the school board, without opposition, approved a motion that reassigns all Pre-K to 3rd grade students living in the eastern half of the county to attend Central Elementary School in Jackson and for all 4th to 8th graders in the eastern portion of the county to attend Conway Middle School.

Phil Matthews, temporary special assistant to Interim Northampton Schools Superintendent Dr. Del Burns, told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald on Friday that the parents/guardians of the students impacted by the reassignments will be notified over the next few days.

“Our goal is to notify those parents/guardians by the end of next week….by the end of June at the very latest,” Matthews said.

As to the impact on the staff at Willis Hare, Matthews stressed that “no one is losing their job.”

“Everybody who was working at Willis Hare will be offered to continue their employment within the school district,” Matthews continued. “It’s a huge task to figure out where they will go. There are positions in need of filling throughout our school district.”

As for the educational infrastructure at Willis Hare (desks, chairs, tables, computers, media center materials, cafeteria items, etc.), Matthews said, “we will use what is needed at our other schools.”

He added that no work is needed for the physical plant at either Central Elementary or Conway Middle to accommodate the increased number of students attending those schools due to the reassignment plan.

“We are in the process of replacing the gym floor at Conway Middle School, but that plan was already in the works before the decision was made to close Willis Hare,” Matthews noted.

When asked what will become of the Willis Hare property and buildings, Matthews said no immediate decision will be made.

“That’s open for discussion at a later date,” he stated. “When that time comes, if the school board doesn’t see a need to keep the property, state law requires it to be offered to the county’s board of commissioners. If they reject that offer, then the school board will decide its fate.”

At Monday’s meeting, Matthews outlined a number of health and safety issues that have plagued Willis Hare over the years, saying it will cost roughly $3 million to “get those buildings up to the standards of where they need to be.”

Additionally his report to the school board 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.

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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