LAURINBURG — A candidate for Scotland County school board told members of the Laurinburg City Council that they should use their influence to keep schools from being closed through consolidation.
But the majority of council said the suggestion was a bad idea and no action was taken.
Jacob Pate, an at-large school board candidate made the request this week to council. Pate said he was opposed to the school system closing I. Ellis Johnson Elementary School as part of consolidation and asked where council members stood on the issue.
Council members Mary Evans and James Garby are against consolidation, while council members Mary Jo Adams, Drew Williamson and Curtis Leak are supportive.
“You’ve seen in the past couple elections what happens when you don’t listen to the citizens,” Pate said. “I.E. Johnson is in your jurisdiction which is why I asked. This $15 million consolidation is going to be terrible for this county.”
The cost of consolidation is actually expected to come with a higher price.
The new school, planned for a 30-acre plot of land located off Old John’s Road just south of the US-74 bypass, is expected to cost an estimated $25 million. Improvements to Sycamore Lane come in at $6.85 million and the classroom additions and gym at Laurel Hill will cost about $5.99 million.
District officials said they decided to consolidate because many of the school buildings were operating under-capacity, including middle schools at about 60 percent. Diversity and equity were also issues.
Adams said she was in support of the consolidation because she had worked in IEJ along with numerous other schools in the area and knew first-hand the state of the buildings.
“All our students need to have equal opportunity with a nice updated facility,” Adams said.
Leak agreed, saying that he moved to Laurinburg High School in the 1960’s was because of the new facilities.
“Education in Scotland County wasn’t equal,” Leak said. “To make this thing simple: Laurel Hill got a new school, Wagram got a new school, every kid in Scotland County has a new facility except the kids in inner city of Laurinburg. This is a travesty. We have 15,000 people who live in the city of Laurinburg and we need a new facility.”
But Mayor Matthew Block said council should speak for the hundreds of people opposed to closing IEJ. The mayor started a petition drive to force a referendum vote on school consolidation.
“They don’t want to see IEJ closed, they don’t want to see North Laurinburg closed, and they didn’t want to see Washington Park closed,” Block said. “That would be important for council to advocate for what the citizens want not to try and score points with the school system. We’re not here to advocate for the school system or to get along with the school systems.”
Still Williamson questioned why the public would not want a new school that is the same caliber as those in bigger cities. He also said a new facility would be a selling point to attract new residents and businesses.
Evans said she did not want to see the IEJ closed, but that the city should consider buying all or part for a community center.
“My suggestion is if they are going to close it use it for something the community can benefit from,” Evans said.
Most of council said that even if members went before the school board, it was unlikely to make much of a difference.
“This is a school issue, not a city issue and we’re wasting time,” Adams said.
But Evans said that was nothing new.
“You ought to know about wasting time Mary Jo … you’ve done a lot of it.”
Reach Katelin Gandee at 910-506-3171.