ELIZABETHTOWN — Not every school board member is happy with the way things are going, if Monday night’s community forum at Elizabethtown Middle to discuss consolidation was any indication.
Like two of the previous three forums, school board members present — this time Roger Carroll, Chris Clark, Dennis Edwards, and Glenn McKoy — sat facing the guests. However, like the third forum at East Arcadia, school board member Gary Rhoda sat in the audience.
Superintendent Robert Taylor, in the same format as the other three forums, led a presentation about the rising costs of construction, the need of the system to do something about declining enrollment, and the age of the 13 facilities. He also set forth a proposed solution to the three problems and outlined what it would entail financially. (See the Friday, May 5 print edition of the Bladen Journal for details regarding each affected school.)
When it came time for the Q&A portion of the evening, board member Dennis Edward asked to hear from the four principals about the proposal. All four spoke positively about it and said they would be ready and welcoming to any new students.
“We already mold two student bodies together when they come to us,” said Elizabethtown Middle School Principal Elizabeth Cole. “We’re already working really hard to combine students from different cultures and backgrounds, so we’ll have a plan for making a smooth transition for any new students.”
That was where any atmosphere of excitement or anticipation ended. Rhoda stood and, as he had at the East Arcadia forum, voiced frustration over the format that included guests writing down their questions to be read by district employees.
“You don’t want to hear the voice of the people,” he told the other board members and Central Office staff, likening the situation to Jim Crow laws in that it discriminated against the illiterate. He also voiced frustration again about the fact that a translator wasn’t available for Spanish-speaking parents.
After pointedly questioning Superintendent Robert Taylor about whether Clarkton School of Discovery is a magnet school and how they are funded, Rhoda was invited by Taylor to come by his office to talk.
“I don’t need to come by your office,” Rhoda replied. “That’s what a forum is for — for people to say how they feel. What’s the ratio of student to teachers at Clarkton School of Discovery?”
Taylor politely responded that Rhoda had the numbers of students and teachers at each school and could do the math. Rhoda said he had already done the math, and the student/teacher ratio at Elizabethtown Middle is roughly 25:1, and the Clarkton School of Discovery ratio is 16:1.
“Why don’t we send students from Elizabethtown back to Bladenboro and Clarkton to lower the ratio?” he asked.
“If the Board decides they don’t want application students or Project Challenge students at Clarkton, they have that authority,” answered Taylor.
“Why did you decide to promote this plan instead of other plans?” questioned Rhoda.
“We’ve had multiple plans suggested,” responded Taylor. “People said they didn’t want their community to lose its school, so we developed a plan that no community would be without a school.”
“So you’re saying this is what the community wants?” Rhoda asked.
“That’s what forums are about,” Taylor said. “Forums are about people saying how they feel …”
“Now I’m getting offended,” Rhoda interrupted. He questioned the wisdom of busing children right by certain schools in order to take them to schools farther away, saying, “Come on now, that (doesn’t) make sense. Ms. Cole should have some relief, not Clarkton School of Discovery.”
Rhoda questioned why one school has a STEM facilitator and others don’t, calling the decision “discriminatory.”
“What are you supposed to do when someone tells you you’re discriminating?” Rhoda asked Taylor.
“If I’m not discriminating, there’s nothing for me to do,” Taylor answered. “My number one goal is to ensure …”
“That’s not the right answer,” interjected Rhoda. “You’re supposed to report it.”
“Just because you tell me I’m discriminating doesn’t make it true,” said Taylor. “My responsibility is to look into it. Let me make this clear to anybody who has a question — the reason we developed this format is because we’re not sure what kinds of questions we will be asked or if some questions may be repetitive. We can address questions one at a time or 16 times. I’ve never run away from any question from anybody, and at no point have we said you can’t ask questions.”
Rhoda told them to proceed with the rest of the meeting and he would think of more questions. Inquiries written on cards were read and answered, and several people asked follow-up questions that were answered by Taylor and other Central Office staff.
When someone raised a concern over the travel time that would result from consolidation, Taylor informed guests the current bus routes necessitate drivers leaving bus parking at 4:45 a.m. and the earliest student being picked up at 5:45 a.m.
“We are a large geographic county, so no matter where we have schools, if residents stay in a remote part of the county, it will take them longer to get where they’re going,” answered Taylor.
Taylor closed the gathering with a final word about the plan.
“We can keep 13 schools, no doubt about it, and we can add three more schools if we want to,” he said. “But the state is only going to send us money for 4,533 students. It is incumbent upon the citizens to talk to the county commissioners and say we need to provide funding for the 13 schools we have.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.