ELIZABETHTOWN — At April’s Blademn County Schools Board of Education meeting, Sup’t. Robert Taylor’s contract was extended a year, but the decision wasn’t without controversy and diseention, as witnessed by the slim 5 to 4 vote.
The recent school-consolidation issue, the narrow contract renewal, the announcement of the coming charter school and the accompanying budget issues have made for a rough year for the superintendent.
Bladen Journal staff writer Chrysta Carroll sat down with Taylor this week to discuss these and other issues:
CC: How did you feel about the vote for your contract?
Taylor: Board members have a duty to vote their conscience in terms of how they feel about the superintendent’s contract. I recognize that when the dynamics of the board change, they may have a different opinion about where the district should head. I recognize that whatever they do is not personal, but it is part of their obligation as public officials, and I must respect that process.
Beyond that, they voted to extend the contract, and I was thankful.
CC: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the school system?
Taylor: The biggest challenges are trying to operate with financial uncertainty and trying to operate under state assessment rules that most people don’t feel are fair.
When I say financial uncertainty, we know that school system funding has not returned to prerecession levels, so it’s difficult to hire teachers and pay competitive salaries in a rural district without a lot of money.
As far as the unfair assessment, schools are graded based on a 15-point system, where 85 to 100 is an A and so forth. Next school year, there will be a t10-point scale, so a school like Dublin Primary School, which is performing extremely well academically and has been recognized as a Title I Reward School, may become a B school. It’s not that they are performing poorly, it’s that the measuring rod has changed.
CC: What is the most difficult part of doing your job personally?
Taylor: When you talk about running a system, those operations are based on finances. The most difficult thing is having to make cuts that affect people personally — to have to tell a person that they don’t have job because we don’t have funding. It weighs heavily on me to make decisions that affect people at that level. It’s tough.
CC: What do you think people expect or want from you as superintendent?
Taylor: What people want is dedication to make Bladen County Schools the best system that it can be. They want to be able to send their kids to school with teachers that care, administrators that care, and people that will make sure that their children are safe and loved when they come to school. If we can accomplish that, we can satisfy most parents.
CC: What, in your opinion, is the biggest obstacle to giving people those things?
Taylor: I think the biggest obstacle to public understanding is not knowing that the nature of educating children has changed. As former students, the only thing we know about schooling is how it was done for us. (Today’s parents) graduated high school 25 to 30 years ago, so not being familiar with the latest methods in teaching and learning causes parents to think it should be done the way it was when they were in school. The more we can do to get the community to understand what is necessary in the 21st century, the better we can get them on board with the changes we need to make.
If a school did something 20 years ago, and it was the best school around, and if it were doing the same thing today, it would not be successful. Students change, society changes, and expectations change, and we must adapt to the changing needs of students.
CC: What are you most proud of about Bladen County Schools?
Taylor: There are so many things that I’m proud of. I’m proud that we continue to have a high graduation rate despite all the challenges we face. I’m proud that we have students taking college courses and doing well in them — we have an almost 90 percent passage rate of students taking college courses. I’m proud that we can provide high quality professional development in the district. Quite often, our region of the state looks to Bladen County as an example of how things can be done.
While we continue to have struggles, there are some things that we are doing well that people outside of Bladen County are taking notice of.
CC: You have received a lot of flak about consolidation. What do you wish people in the county knew?
Taylor: I wish people knew that we get money from the state based on the number of students that we have, and it doesn’t get any plainer than that. When enrollment goes down, we’re put in a position where we have to make changes or continue to have the same number of schools with fewer resources. I welcome anyone to come in and look objectively at the data that the schools have reviewed and that board reviewed.
While there may be a million options, there are only a few that work. Nobody has the desire to close schools, but it’s necessary when trying to do what is best for everyone.
Additionally, we’ve been consolidating schools for 200 years. When buildings become aged and outlive their usefulness, we must plan for the future, including constructing new facilities or consolidating what we have. We must have a 10 or 15 year plan as it relates to buildings, especially when we have a district with old buildings like we have. I forget the number exactly, but the average age of the buildings in our district is about 55 years, and we must think about that as a county.
CC: Your contract says that you will be working for Bladen County Schools for the next two years. During your tenure, what would you like to see happen in the school system?
Taylor: The main thing that I want to see accomplished is increased academic progress by students and to continue to build the infrastructure that will prepare kids for the world they will occupy. Those seem like broad goals, but they are not. We must teach kids how to communicate and how to work as teams in order to achieve academically. For me, it’s not about making sure we have a computer in every kid’s hand or a robust network—it is making sure we are sending kids into the world prepared. If we continue to work toward that goal, we will be doing what I think is most important.
CC: What do you think it takes to make a good superintendent?
Taylor: I think it take patience and understanding the local history, and I think it take a specific knowledge about school operations. In my opinion, you can be patient and know the local community, but if you don’t have a specific skill set, it is difficult to do the job. I think it takes a love of children and of teaching and learning. I tell people all the time that I’m a school teacher. At the end of the day, I’m a teacher, and if a superintendent keeps that in mind, (he) will do good job meeting the expectations of the community.
CC: A charter school is scheduled to open in Bladen County next year. What will that do to the public school system, and what do you want to say to parents who would consider the move?
Taylor: It’s hard to know what the impact will be. We have no way of knowing how many students will enroll, so it’s been tremendously hard to plan a budget without knowing how much money we will receive.
I want people to understand that charter schools don’t have the same certification requirements as public schools, so they run the risk of having their child’s teacher not fully licensed or not licensed at all. Compare that to the public school system, which is required to have fully licensed teachers.
If they look at our primary schools for upcoming year, we will be offering art, music, and P.E in all schools, and by certified art, music, and P.E. teachers. We recognize the importance of educating the whole child, so we’ve made an effort this year to make sure that every school has the opportunity to be exposed to art, music, and P.E., and if they visit the schools, they will see what we’re talking about.
CC: What else would you like to say to county residents?
Taylor: I like the changes that we have made in Bladen County since I’ve been here. We have a tremendous amount of work left to be done, but we are better off now than when I came.
No one wants to see Bladen County succeed more than I. I am a product of the public school system, and, if not for public schools, I would not be where I am today. That’s why I give my life to it.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.