Going up, up, up: Bladen County Schools faced with aging facilities

By: Chrysta Carroll - Bladen Journal

It’s the 1940s. Fresh off World War II, Americans see a bright future — a military powerhouse, a booming economy, and peace and prosperity — a utopia for building families. And they do. In 1946, a record-breaking 3.4 million babies were born in the U.S., ushering in the Baby Boomer generation, which would become 77 million strong by the 1960s.

Concurrently with the rise in population was an drastic increase in the economy. With middle-class families having more money to spend than ever, the government having a larger tax base than ever, and the nation seeing record-breaking numbers of children needing education — thanks in part to the slow death of Jim Crow laws — a construction boom was born. Americans were flocking to suburbs, and their large families needed schools.

Bladen County was no exception. The 1950s saw the construction of five new schools that are still around today — Dublin Primary and Plain View Primary in 1951, East Arcadia in 1956, and Bladenboro Primary and Elizabethtown Primary in 1958. The county would go on to build Elizabethtown Middle in 1971, Bladen Lakes Primary in 1977, and East Bladen and West Bladen in 2001.

The schools aren’t the oldest in the county still in use, however. Booker T. Washington was constructed in 1947 and Clarkton School of Discovery at some point in the 1940s. Tar Heel Middle and Bladenboro Primary take the prize for the oldest, with both near-centennarians going back to the 1920s.

Just like with people, deterioration accompanies age.

“Ten years ago, a study was done that showed our facilities needed $60 million in upgrades,” Superintendent Robert Taylor said recently. “Sixy million. (What is being proposed) only breaks the surface of what we need to do.”

The proposal to which Taylor was referring was last year’s discussion at the Board of Education about renovations that would accompany consolidation, one of which had to do with Tar Heel Middle School. Since Tar Heel’s construction almost a century ago, many changes have been made to educational facility standards, including those regarding class size.

“This is an issue,” Taylor commented. “Classroom size should be around 1,400 square feet, and we’re at about 700.”

In addition to increasing class size, the upwards of $60 million in updates that need to happen include modular buildings at multiple primary schools, field houses at both the high schools, multipurpose rooms at three schools, roofs, and cafeteria upgrades.

The questions for the county are whether investing more than $60 million should be done on old facilities or on new ones and whether now is the time for a repeat of the construction boom of the 1940s and 1950s.

People in communities like East Arcadia, Tar Heel, and Clarkton are adamant about their viewpoint, with detractors of the school board’s consolidation plan stating that communities that lose their schools end up dying.

“If it’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that nobody wants to see their community schools closed,” Taylor said.

Some of the most vocal opponents to the ongoing consolidation discussion, in fact, use age as the basis of their argument to keep old structures.

“This building is almost 100 years old and we’re standing here in it,” remarked one attendee at Tar Heel last year. “Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s not good.”

With the average age of the school facilities in Bladen County being 59 and growing older each day, the question is not whether the county will have to invest in education — it’s when and how.

Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing ccarroll@bladenjournal.com.

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Chrysta Carroll

Bladen Journal