ELIZABETHTOWN — The only things hotter than the board room were the tempers flaring at Monday night’s Bladen County Board of Education meeting.
Chairman Wilbur Smith only had to bring down his gavel once during the meeting, and board members and guests alike remained relatively calm during the majority of the agenda — until board members left for closed session.
At 7:26 p.m., board members left to, according to the agenda, talk about personnel, student transfers, and legal issues. Two individuals were also signed up to speak during the citizen participation portion of the evening, and Superintendent Robert Taylor informed the board the two guests would speak during the closed session. Consolidation was on the agenda to be discussed during the superintendent’s report.
Present at the meeting were a large number of people with interests in Clarkton School of Discovery and East Arcadia, two of the schools that will likely be impacted by a decision about consolidation.
As soon as board members left, guests, though still in a good mood at this point, began speculating about the closed session.
“They’re just going back there waiting for us to go home,” said Iris Lartin, laughing.
After one hour, though, the camaraderie turned to shared frustration. Guests noticed the laughter coming from the room to which board members adjourned and questioned what was going on. They began to voice serious opinions that the board was deliberately trying to delay reporting on consolidation and stated resolve to wait it out.
Approaching two hours into closed session, tempers began flaring.
Lartin, the willing voice for a group from East Arcadia, said, “We are very dissatisfied. They put this at the end of the agenda, and they should have talked about this before going into closed session. Just man up and woman up and tell us the determination before you go into closed session. This is unnecessary to keep us waiting like this. They’re just hoping we’re going to leave, but we’re not.
“I’ve been making note of everybody’s name up there now, and I will be looking at that when it’s election time. They’re not thinking of us at all,” she added. A chorus of “mm-hmm”s and “that’s right” followed.
When the board drifted back in and reconvened at 9:16, the room broke out in applause and guests noted the smiles and good moods of board members.
Although nothing from the closed session was discussed in open session, the issue of consolidation did come up in Taylor’s report.
Taylor recommended to the board consolidation in two phases. Phase one would consist of the following:
— 151 students from Plain View Primary would move to Dublin Primary.
— Students from Booker T. Washington would be divided among Bladenboro Primary, East Arcadia, Elizabethtown Primary, and Elizabethtown Middle School.
— Students from Clarkton School of Discovery would be dispersed to Bladenboro Middle and Elizabethtown Middle.
— Bladen Lakes would receive some students from Elizabethtown Primary.
— Additional classrooms would be added at Dublin Primary and Bladen Lakes at a cost of $875,000-$1.1 million.
Phase two would involve constructing two new K-8 schools and a pre-K center that would double as a teacher center. Taylor recommended the board approve the plan with the contingency that the Board of Commissioners approve phase two. But board members were not on board with the plan.
“If we’re not sure of how things will turn out, we’ll upset a lot of citizens,” said Smith. “We need to have a plan, and we’ve got to get our act together — this has been pending for two years. It’s unacceptable.”
When guests tried to get involved in the discussion, Smith advised them to wait until the board had a chance to respond.
Smith suggested a plan in writing that included information about possible locations for the two proposed schools and confirmation from the Board of Commissioners about moving forward. Taylor countered that the Board of Education needed to agree on something before sending it to the Board of Commissioners.
“That (the location of the new schools) will be the most contentious part of the plan,” said Taylor. “To me, it makes more sense to get commitment for it, and, once it’s signed off, you have the opportunity to determine a location without it being politically charged.”
When finger-pointing and raised voices ensued, board member Alan West said he wouldn’t serve on an ad hoc committee and the discussion needed to be with the entire board.
“You don’t have to be on the committee,” said board member Gary Rhoda, at which point Smith brought down the gavel. It remained in his hand throughout the remainder of the meeting.
A guest interjected that the system stands to lose a lot of children who will go elsewhere if forced to attend a school the parents don’t like. Suddenly, Smith suggested all comments be emailed to Taylor and adjourned the meeting.
“After only two questions (from the crowd), they closed the discussion,” said guest Sherry Harvey. “They tell us to come, and when we do, they don’t let us talk. We’ve asked to be added to the agenda, and they won’t do it. It’s not fair.”
After the meeting, Smith said the board is required by law to hold community forums before closing schools, which will be determined at a later date. He also said the board is in waiting mode until a formal, detailed recommendation is received from Taylor.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.