EAST ARCADIA — It’s 5:59 p.m. — one minute before a meeting to learn the fate of a community school — and only one person not employed by the school system is there.
On Thursday, the Bladen County Board of Education hosted the third of four community forums to discuss possible consolidation. The first, at Tar Heel Middle School, saw around 150 guests, and the second, at Clarkton School of Discovery, was attended by roughly 70 people. At the third forum, held at East Arcadia, around 30 people were there when the meeting started, and all except one were either employees of East Arcadia School, on the school board, or from the Central Office. The sole guest present at 5:59 was from another school, she said. Board of Education members included Glenn McKoy, Gary Rhoda, Chris Clark, and Chair Vincent Rozier.
Similar to the second forum, Board of Education members sat behind tables and faced the crowd. But Gary Rhoda sat in the back of the room “with (his) people.” He would later show the first public crack in the board’s solidarity over the consolidation plan.
In the same vein as the other two forums, the meeting began with Superintendent Robert Taylor giving a presentation highlighting the age of the facilities, the declining enrollment, and the rising costs of construction. Taylor urged those present to consider what will happen if facilities needs aren’t addressed immediately.
“Ten years ago, a study was done that showed our facilities needed $60 million in upgrades,” he said. “Sixy million. (What is being proposed) only breaks the surface of what we need to do.”
He added the problems would only be compounded by refusing to do anything about them, and construction costs would only continue to rise.
“If we can’t afford it today, we can afford it even less tomorrow,” he informed guests.
At issue for East Arcadia families under the proposed plan is travel time. The consolidation plan includes East Arcadia becoming a K-4 school only, and upper grades would attend either Clarkton School of Discovery or Elizabethtown Middle School. For some families, the change would mean an additional 45 minute commute.
Present for the meeting was Verline Graham, who served on the Bladen County Board of Education for 29 years.
“Parents are not going to make that drive,” she said after the meeting. “These schools will end up closing, because parents are going to take their children to other districts rather than drive that long distance.”
Taylor informed guests at East Arcadia, as he had at previous forums when asked about the issue, that parents wanting to enroll students in another system must first obtain permission from their local education board.
“We’re glad to put our efforts up against anybody, anywhere,” Taylor said of other educational options. “If they can work under our conditions and get better results, we’ll listen to what they have to say. We feel we are the strongest and best option to educate the masses, and I think we do a good job of that.”
When it came time for the Q&A portion of the evening, the first question came from school board member Rhoda.
“I want to know if there will be other plans presented,” he said. “I don’t like this one.”
Taylor responded that he works for the Bladen County Board of Education, whose members work on behalf of their constituents.
“Mr. Rhoda is absolutely right,” Taylor commented after the meeting. “There are a host of other plans we’ve considered, and I personally think there are better plans. What makes the most sense financially is closing Clarkton School of Discovery, but Clarkton has been very clear they don’t want that. This may not be the best option, but it’s one we can get the community to buy into.”
Rhoda, after the meeting, voiced frustration with the meeting format, saying he didn’t like the fact that translators weren’t available for the meetings and citing the large number of Spanish-speaking people who turned out for the Tar Heel forum. He also remarked he didn’t like the format of guests turning in questions prior to the presentation by Taylor.
“It’s voter suppression,” he said. “People don’t get the chance to respond to what they hear.”
During the Q&A session, one guest questioned whether year-round school could be considered as an option in order to retain parents who may move out of the system for the choice. Taylor answered that possibly due to the strength and focus on both agriculture and the vacation season, he has not, in his tenure here, seen a desire for it on the part of parents.
The fourth and final community forum will be held Tuesday at Elizabethtown Middle School at 6 p.m.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.