ELIZABETHTOWN — After several months of reprieve from the mounting pressure surrounding school consolidation, the issue bubbled up again Monday at the Bladen County Board of Education meeting.
In January 2016, after months of discussing possible school closings and receiving heavy backlash from the community, the board voted unanimously to involve and seek guidance from the School Planning Division of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. From May 15-19, DPI representatives visited 11 of the 13 Bladen County schools, excluding the two high schools.
On Monday, Ken Phelphs, who holds a Ph.D in architecture and is the lead planning consultant for the division, returned to inform the board of his group’s findings. His lengthy document detailed the problematic areas and positive attributes of each of the 11 schools, as well as a synopsis and the committee’s recommendations.
Before beginning, Phelps stressed that the committee, when making recommendations, took into account factors such as facility size, number of classrooms and utilities, but that there was much data available only to the board — such as density, bus routes, and staff assignments — and were not part of the overall recommendation.
“We concur with the (board’s) previous recommendation to close Plain View and Booker T. Washington,” said Phelps.
He recommended that the board re-evaluate the distribution of students from Plain View that they had previously considered, as he did not think the schools to which the students had been potentially assigned could accommodate the increase, but agreed that students from Booker T. Washington should be reassigned to East Arcadia and Bladenboro.
While the planning committee concurred with the Board of Education outright about the closing of the two primary schools, the much-debated topic of which middle school to close remained up in the air.
“We recommend that you close one or the other (Clarkton School of Discovery or Tar Heel Middle School),” said Phelps, noting that the schools were fairly equal with regard to the number of problems with mechanical and electrical systems.
Phelps also informed the board that, after the report had been drafted, the planning committee learned of “financial constraints with Tar Heel Middle and (county) commissioners that may have a bearing on what (the board) does.”
“It may come to be that the question of the impact of the financial arrangement with the county may make the decision for you,” Phelps informed the board.
Taylor reminded the board that a similar inspection had been conducted 10 years earlier detailing problems at all schools and, at that time, the cost of repairing everything and bringing all facilities up to code was $60 million, which could likely be $85 million today.
When Board Chairman Wilbur Smith questioned whether the spread-out campus of Tar Heel Middle should have any effect on the board’s decision, Phelps responded that of greater concern were the mechanical and electrical system problems.
“This is what we needed,” said Smith, “third-party information that we can pass along to the commissioners.”
After the board thanked Phelps for coming, one attendee asked if the assembly could direct questions to Phelps. Smith, after getting input from the board, responded that since they had just received the report, the board would like time to review it more before generating discussion. Phelps departed and around 15 people left with him and remained in the lobby for the duration of the meeting asking him questions.
In other business, the board:
— Approved $635,000 for a migrant education plan and $266,000 for improving teacher quality. The latter generated much discussion, as board members were adamant that employees, for the most part, were unaware that up to $850 per year was available to them to further their education, and board members leveled accusations that the availability of that money was not communicated well to school employees.
“I had a conversation with someone just last week who said they were not going to get reimbursed,” said board member Roger Carroll.
“Well, some people get reimbursed, and some don’t,” countered board member Ophelia Munn-Goins.
Smith suggested the information be conveyed at convocation, Taylor voiced that he didn’t understand why anyone didn’t know, and Tonya Head said that she would make sure principals put it on the agenda for their first staff meeting.
— Approved a Title I plan for $1.9 million, or $548 per student.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.