ELIZABETHTOWN —The Bladen County Board of Education’s plan to close three schools brought numerous residents out to the Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday to voice concerns.
The meeting was temporarily moved to the Superior Court Room to accommodate the crowd that had gathered and Chairman Charles Ray Peterson told those in attendance there are two opportunities for folks to speak during the meeting — once at the beginning of the meeting and once again at the end.
George Keiper was the first parent to speak.
“I came up here tonight to speak from my heart,” said Keiper.
He told the board the residents of Clarkton have a lot of pride in Booker T. Washington and Clarkton School of Discovery. Keiper asked the board to reconsider the funding of the school system.
“Our kids are our future,” said Keiper.
He told the board the schools are an important part of the community, that he had read comments about the failed sales tax referendum and he reminded those present that Bladen County is a poor county.
Keiper told the board that Clarkton School of Discovery is one of the highest performing schools in the county and yet it is one that is being considered for closure.
Sabrina Murchison also addressed the board and introduced her own proposal for consolidation that would include combining Elizabethtown Primary and Bladen Lakes Primary, combining Bladenboro Primary and Bladenboro Middle School, moving students from Plain View Primary to Tar Heel Middle School, and moving students at Booker T. Washington to Clarkton School of Discovery’s campus.
Murchison told the board that she believed the quarter-cent sales tax referendum failed because residents didn’t understand the proposal. She suggested the board consider revisiting the sales tax referendum.
“I would like to have it explained exactly what the money would be used for,” said Murchsion.
She also gave the board statistics on the numbers of teachers at each school as well as student enrollment numbers at each school.
“If we are going to close schools, let’s be fair about it,” said Murchsion.
Joseph Rozier Jr. also addressed the board and asked the board to consider the harm to the community if the schools are closed.
Peterson then read from a prepared statement. In the statement Peterson pointed out that the financial hardship the school system is in large part due to declining student enrollment over the years and that has translated to a loss in state funding.
Peterson also pointed to a report produced by the N.C. Public School Forum in 2013 ranked the county No. 78 in fiscal ability to support its school system and 29th out of 100 in support of its school system.
Peterson also reminded those gathered that in 2010 and twice in 2014, the Bladen County citizens have defeated a quarter-cent sales tax referendum that could have provided additional funding for the school system. Peterson told the group the commissioners cannot automatically levy a sales tax and a request was made to the General Assembly to grant Bladen County that power to enact this tax, which was denied.
“We cannot do it without another vote,” said Peterson.
He read, “Due to a reduction in state funding in fiscal year 2014, Bladne County Schools used a large amount of fudn balance from the Gneerla Fund — and even more from Capital Outlay Fund, for gneral operating expenses. Primarily, these funds were used to maintain staff positions previously funded with revenue from the state.”
The statement continued: “It is concerning that $1.2 million from Capital Outlay Fund was transferred to current expense, when the school system has identified so many capital needs.”
Peterson said, “They chose to take Capital Outlay Funds and use it for general operations.”
The school board has also used $700,000 in fund balance in the same year and depleted the general fund to a level of $150,000 as of June 30, 2014, according to Peterson.
In May, the school board requested the commissioners permission to move more capital outlay funds in the amont $495,000 to balance the FY 2014-15 budget. The commissioners denied the request citing statutory regulations. The commissioners eventually issued $350,000 from the commissioners’ general fund balance.
Peterson told those gathered that there are many needs in the county and one such need is a new jail that is currently under construction — a project the county has no option other than to build it.
“The judge threatened to close the jail,” said Peterson.
—Erin Smith can be reached at 910-862-4163.