Voters should decide school consolidation

By: Matthew Block - Guest columnist

Eds note: The following remarks were made Oct. 3 before the Local Government Commission in opposition to the state panel approving Scotland County’s request to approve limited obligation bonds.

Good afternoon. Thank you for allowing me to speak against the proposed $14 million dollar Scotland School bond. My name is Matthew Block.

I am the mayor of Laurinburg and a cardiologist in private practice in Laurinburg, where I have lived since 2001.

I believe you all have had the opportunity to read the reasons that myself and many others object to this project. The time constraints of this hearing do not allow for enumerating them again. I just want to highlight the two most important points

First, although the pros and cons of school consolidation can be argued ad nauseam, it would seem wise to defer to the authority of the North Carolina Department of Instruction. In their comprehensive review of school consolidation, they summarize by writing “Based on the review of the literature on school size and the results of the analyses of available data from North Carolina, there appear to be some behavioral and academic advantages associated with smaller schools. There is little empirical support for making schools larger. Studies have failed to adequately demonstrate the presumed economic and curricular benefits associated with larger schools.” So, whether one is for or against school consolidation efforts, it can hardly be argued that it is necessary and expedient.

Secondly, this project has a major overall negative effect on our already deeply struggling local economy. Scotland County has the highest unemployment out of all 100 counties and is the 99th poorest county in the state of North Carolina. Over the last 20 years the workforce has declined by 40 percent and the student population has dropped from 7200 to 5800 and dropped another 100 students this year. Instead of these millions of dollars of local tax money staying in the community providing good jobs in the schools , the money instead will be sent out of the local economy to some far away bank every month for the next twenty years.

I believe, from the evidence you have been presented, including a petition with over a thousand names, the unanimous citizen opposition at the public hearing and the unanimous opposition at the neighborhood school board public meetings, that any objective person would have to agree that the evidence before you does not show any level of community support of this project. In fact, it shows almost universal opposition to this project.

However, the point has been made that the fact that all the county commissioners voted in favor of this bond somehow serves as a surrogate for the people’s will. In other words, the unanimous vote in favor of this project by the commissioners is de facto evidence of community support. To show that is not a reasonable assumption, I reference the Scotland County one-quarter percent local sales tax referendum held in November 2012. The commissioners, many of the same ones as now, voted unanimously to approve the one-quarter percent sales tax, but, as you know, the law required the commissioners to put it to a referendum vote. County Manager Kevin Patterson and several commissioners launched an information campaign in favor of it. Even the chamber got involved in promoting its benefits. The voters however, felt very differently. The referendum, for just a quarter added to every $100 dollar purchase, was soundly defeated 7,880 against and 4,494 for or 64 percent to 36 percent (almost 2 to 1). This serves as a striking example that when it comes to how the citizens money is spent, the unanimous opinion of the county commission, supported by the Chamber of Commerce cannot be taken as representing the will of the people. And it was not even close.

In conclusion, in your own document, it is stated that community support for the project is important, especially for non-voted debt. Projects dealing with schools and children are highly volatile. I submit to you that there is little to no community support for this project and moving forward without acknowledging the will of the people will not only doom this project but is not the right thing to do. Therefore, I ask you to consider either a) request the county commissioners to provide evidence of community support or B) if you do not want to burden the commissioners, tell us what number of signatures would be needed to show you there is no support, would 5,000 or 8,000 as in 2012 be enough- we can get you those next month, or C) request it be put to a referendum in 2018 which would also allow for the issuance of lower interest general obligation bond.

Thank you

Matthew Block

Guest columnist