LAURINBURG — The Scotland County Board of Education learned a surefire way to clear a room on Monday: make a decision that your audience doesn’t like.
After a combined 21 minutes of public hearings, during which six people spoke against converting Sycamore Lane Middle School to an elementary school, the board elected to do just that, effective this fall.
The board also elected to close Washington Park Elementary School and Pate-Gardner Elementary School and send those students to Sycamore Lane when the new school year begins in August.
Those decisions came after nearly six months of debate — both among the board and with parents and teachers at every elementary and middle school in the system — regarding student safety, the efficiency of the system’s schools at their current capacity, and the disparities in racial composition from school to school.
The discussion began at the end of 2014, when the board began to consider expanding Washington Park to eliminate the use of classroom trailers, which place children out of doors in a sometimes volatile neighborhood. But when the school board requested that the county endorse borrowing the money necessary for that expansion, the commissioners asked the board to consider the capacity available at the system’s current schools.
That capacity study revealed that the system’s middle schools, which were designed to serve close to 700 students each, have enrollment levels closer to 450. Moreover, as Superintendent Ron Hargrave pointed out on Monday when asked by board member Darrel Gibson what would happen should the board leave all the schools as they are, the system’s total enrollment has fallen by more than 300 in recent years.
“If we continue in that direction, at some point we will have to come back and address this,” Hargrave said. “If the population of the county does not come to a point where it halts and then begins to climb again, we’re going to have to address this. Because then you question whether or not we’re wisely using our facilities.”
Those who spoke during Monday’s public hearings — one each for the closure of Washington Park and the conversion of Sycamore Lane — worried about the drive, by car or bus, from Laurinburg to either of the middle schools outside of the city limits.
Rob Macy, whose son attended Spring Hill Middle School in Wagram to take advantage of the magnet program for gifted students, said he considers the time his son spent on a bus to be time wasted.
“That’s a thousand contact hours I lost with my son, a thousand,” he said. “Why? We’re about to do the same thing with how many more children in this community?”
The 100 people gathered in the boardroom burst into spontaneous applause when Mary Callahan-Lopez told the board that driving her child to Spring Hill or Carver will cost her family $1,300 extra each school year.
“I don’t have an extra $1,300 a year,” she said. “Maybe you all do, but I don’t have an extra $1,300 a year, and I would like for you to consider the families’ expense.”
Mary Jacobs asked the board to consider the effect that consolidation will have on class sizes, and Roxanne Douglas pointed out that people may be deterred from moving to Laurinburg if there is no middle school within its borders.
Rick Snipes, a parent and law enforcement officer, expressed unease about sending more students into areas that are not served by municipal police departments.
“Putting more students in the schools outside the community of Laurinburg will probably put our students, our teachers, our faculty in danger from incidents widespread all over the United States,” he said. “Response time from some of our local agencies will take a lot longer by putting the bulk of our children in these schools outside of Laurinburg.”
The board held a public hearing regarding the closure of Pate-Gardner in May, when the school’s principal and two of its teachers supported it remaining open.
Following Monday’s public hearings and some discussion, the motions to close Pate-Gardner, to close Washington Park, and to close Sycamore Lane as a middle school were made separately by board members Summer Stanley, Raymond Hyatt, and Charles Brown respectively. Board member Pat Gates then moved to reassign Washington Park and Pate-Gardner students to Sycamore Lane.
All four of those motions passed unanimously.
With the consolidation, enrollment at both Carver and Spring Hill will grow by nearly 250 this fall. While closing Pate-Gardner and Washington Park will mean a cost savings to the system, the school board promised on Monday that it is only the first phase in what will be a comprehensive district-wide consolidation.
“I understand that we can’t predict what’s going to happen in two or three years, but that’s what true vision and strategic leadership does,” Gibson said. “It says in two years, or five years, this is where we want to be. Along the way you have to make adjustments and you have to do different things, but what does it do for us to say this is what we want to look toward doing in the next few years.”
The board charged Hargrave with formally proposing a plan for the rest of the district in March 2016. Possibilities discussed so far include the closure of South Scotland, I. Ellis Johnson, and Covington Street elementary schools as well as Shaw Academy, the construction of a new elementary school in Laurinburg, and conversion of North Laurinburg Elementary to serve as the system’s alternative schools.
“We can continue to put money in to buildings, or we can do things to better our students,” said board chairman Jeff Byrd. “If we’re going to vote tonight, if it’s just going to be a plan to do Pate-Gardner and Washington Park, I would vote no. But if it’s a plan for the whole district, I think that’s what we have to do.”
Following the board’s vote on Monday, few of those assembled were shy about voicing their displeasure as they vacated the boardroom.
“I don’t get it,” said Karen James, who has grandchildren at Sycamore Lane and Washington Park. “I’m baffled, I’m so baffled. For them to say that they were going to do it in 2016 and 2017, that was when the school was going to be moved. Now you’re going to say the school is going to be moved now. Where’s the hurry? I don’t understand that.”
In other business on Monday, the board:
— Approved a STEM magnet program to be implemented at Carver Middle School this fall for sixth graders.
— Recognized transportation and maintenance office manager Gale McNeil, network administrator Ron Grant, and I. Ellis Johnson bookkeeper Vicky Jones-McNeil as key players.
— Recognized the Carver Middle School Technology Student Association on their distinction as a chapter of excellence from North Carolina.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.