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School Board, Commissioners Discuss Possible School Consolidations, Facility Needs

By Bethany Stephens

The Board of Education met with the County Commissioners Monday night to discuss possible school consolidations and facility needs. Dr. Robert Taylor, Superintendent of Bladen County Schools, spoke on behalf of the School Board explaining what they felt should be done to address the issues.

Due to community resistance at possibly losing community schools, Taylor proposed several possibilities contingent on the County Commissioners’ approval of funding concerns and logistics. After giving an overview of the county’s current student enrollment numbers, Taylor addressed the role that charter schools were having in relation – especially with Emereau opening next year. Taylor explained that currently Emereau has about 164 students enrolled to attend when they open. Since some of these students were already at charter schools further away before now, 100 students could possibly be coming out of the county’s current student enrollment. Final numbers will be known by around August of this year.

Because of the community’s desire to not lose all the schools in any one town, Taylor and the school board proposed that Booker T. Washington be closed with its Kindergarten through fourth grade students being sent to either East Arcadia Primary or Elizabethtown Primary depending on where in Clarkton’s district the students live. Clarkton School of Discovery would remain as the magnet school with Project Challenge as it already is with the addition of the fifth grade students that previously would have gone to Booker T. Washington.

Under this setup, Tar Heel Middle would be rebuilt and consolidated onto one campus with Plainview Primary. Because of redistricting, some students that live on the northern side of Dublin would go to the new school to alleviate crowding issues at Dublin Primary.

The changes at East Arcadia would eliminate 3 to 4 teaching positions. Since Bladen Lakes Primary would need three teachers, these positions could possibly be transferred. The consolidations of Tar Heel and Plain View and of Booker T. Washington’s fifth graders and Clarkton School of Discovery won’t save the county any money on teaching positions since they still have different grades that can’t be merged, but there would still be a possible $65,000 savings via combined maintenance, custodial support, and utilities.

In addition to the new school estimated at $27 million, Taylor hopes to also build a $500,000 modular building at Dublin Primary, multipurpose buildings at Bladenboro Primary, Bladen Lakes, and Elizabethtown Primary, a field house at each high school, expansion of Elizabethtown Primary’s cafeteria, various needed upgrades at East Arcadia and throughout the schools. All together, Taylor estimated the costs to be approximately $38 million plus possibly two additional buses.

Next, Taylor discussed various sources of revenue that could pay off the current debt on the high schools to free up money to pay on the new facilities. Following all of the above, Taylor answered questions from the commissioners. Ashley Trivette, Commissioner, asked several questions concerning the role, pros, and cons of the charter schools in relation to the public schools, bus routes, and funding of principal positions. In response to Trivette’s questions as well as Arthur Bullock’s concerning the same, Taylor said there would be little changes in busing costs, but that longer times were going to be with Middle school age and up since they can deal with the extra length better than elementary aged students can.

In response to Trivette’s questions about the charter schools’ roles, Taylor said the pros of charter schools is that they give parents choices, but on the downside, they sometimes leave a level of uncertainty for the public schools. Later in the meeting, he also said that students that attend charter schools tend to do well since they tend to come from homes with proactive parents but that the same students statistically performed as well or better in the public schools.

Ophelia Munn-Goins, Commissioner, asked about Elizabethtown Middle’s capacity and how many Clarkton School of Discovery students were going to Clarkton out of district. Taylor explained that of the 225 students at Clarkton, about 77 of them were from the Clarkton district, and the rest were either part of Project Challenge or voluntary magnet students (which there are also about 70).

Trivette asked when there had last been a request for new construction, Taylor said that in about 2012 the Board of Education talked with the commissioners about it, but the commissioners said that the current debt on the high schools had to paid down first. The last facilities built were the high schools around 2002. At the time they were $36 million which now is a very low price due to inflation. Inflation and rising prices are one of the main reasons that Taylor and the board want to address the facility concerns (regardless of consolidations) now if possible, as they will still be having to pay to patch old buildings only to have to build in a few years any way at a higher cost. Trivette seemed to be concerned about the same issue, and said that, of all the things that the county should try to support financially when feasible, is the schools. Additionally, in response to a question by Munn-Goins as to why Booker T. Washington would close, Taylor explained that it would be due to financing issues and that Tar Heel’s building is the oldest in the county and needs the most repair.

Charles Ray Peterson, County Commissioner Chair, said that he thought the figures were higher than he thought a new school could be built for through an independent contractor over a state contractor, and he got into a heated conversation with Tim Benton, member of the Board of Education. After Peterson had said several negative statements about the plan without a clear proposal for how to fix it, Benton asked Peterson what he would do since no plan they had given seemed to suit him and that the reason the board was even having to consider consolidation was due to Peterson insisting in the past that the current 14 schools couldn’t be supported and that cuts had to be made. Peterson wouldn’t say and angrily said that it wasn’t his job to make a plan since he was a commissioner and wasn’t on the school board and had not run to be on it. Benton emphasized that Peterson had in fact run for Board of Education in the past to which Peterson later conceded.

Dennis Edwards, Board of Education Member, expressed concern that money could be allocated to support a new jail when the majority of the county’s schools are old and need addressing equally if not more so. Ray Britt, County Commissioner, seemed to agree with the general sentiment that the schools should be a priority and wondered why Bladen couldn’t build field houses like was done at South Columbus where the community built them. Britt said that he had asked Rob Spainhour, former principal of East Bladen, why this couldn’t be done several years ago, but he was told it wasn’t feasible in Bladen County. Taylor said that it might be plausible but not likely since regulations on the specs of that kind of thing have gotten stricter in recent years.

Alan West, Board of Education Member, asked if aging and less modern facilities were a detriment to industry coming into the county (which would be one asset to building the new Tar Heel school on the Cumberland County end of Bladen), and Peterson stated that school facilities, test scores, and crime rates were what industries looked at when considering where to locate. Trivette especially (as well as some of the other commissioners) understood the need but wasn’t sure of its feasibility yet but didn’t want to “throw good money after bad” repairing and patching aging facilities that would need to be addressed again in a few years regardless. Both the Board of Education and the County Commissioners (except for Michael Cogdell who wasn’t able to attend) agreed to review the information and meet again to discuss something more concretely.

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