12/15/04 — School issues lead to long session for Wayne boards

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School issues lead to long session for Wayne boards

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 15, 2004 2:00 PM

Efforts between the school board and county commissioners to study school problems took several twists during a two-hour meeting Tuesday, but no decisions were made.

Several school board members said they were reluctant to have a consultant, hired by the county commissioners, help them form a school construction plan.

And one commissioner said he may not come back to the next meeting, because he was disappointed with the discussion's tone.

Commissioner John Bell said he came to the meeting prepared to hear that the boards would work together to make the school system better. A discussion about racial imbalance in the school system, however, prompted him to say the meeting "may be fruitless."

Others said, though, that the discussion was frank and such problems needed to be discussed openly.

County Manager Lee Smith said the Davenport Group had been hired to look at the county's building needs and financial condition. He said he had a directive from the commissioners to look at what was affordable without raising taxes.

He suggested that the consulting firm also meet with the school board's finance committee at no cost to the school system.

"I'm excited about this opportunity," he said. "I think (they) will be painfully honest."

School board member Rick Pridgen supported the idea.

"In the last two years, we have had $4.8 million in budget cuts," he said. "We can't keep on at that rate ... Anything we can do to facilitate better financial understanding between us and you guys, we need to do that."

Several other school board members were uncertain about the consultant.

"If we refuse," Thelma Smith said, "it looks like we're not trying to cooperate with you and that there's something we're trying to hide."

She said she had no problem with the consultant, but it could put the school board in a precarious position.

Board member Shirley Sims said the school board had employed a company to do a long-range study in 1999.

Board member Pete Gurley asked what would happen if the school board did not agree with the consultant.

"He who pays the fiddler, calls the tune," he said. "I don't have a problem with the study, but I don't want the commissioners to have hard feelings."

They agreed to a meeting between the consultant and the entire school board. It was also decided that the board needs to make some revisions on its construction study.

As a result, discussion about the proposed "20/20 Vision Committee" was delayed. The committee would look at the racial imbalance in the schools and other issues.

Smith said county commissioners have planned several work sessions in January and will then have a better idea of how much money could be available for school projects.

"We have a lot of catching up to do," he said. "We can't do it overnight."

Dr. Steven Taylor, schools superintendent, said that a lot of the problems boil down to money and how much the school system has to work with.

"We have got a lot of needs," he said.

Some school board members expressed frustration that construction plans submitted in recent years have fallen by the wayside.

Board member John Grantham said the plans were submitted as a way to improve things in the future. He said the boards need to move forward instead of continuing to react.

Ms. Sims said, "We don't need to continue to reinvent the wheel if we're not going to take action."

Recently elected Commissioner Jack Best, said, "We have a couple of new commissioners on board. I think we have come to the crossroads and to a point that we have got to do something."

He said that is also why a 15-year plan for the schools is being considered. It will be easier to sell to the public if the boards are in agreement and moving in the right direction.

"It's time," he said.

Board member Thelma Smith said she continues to be bothered by the racial imbalance in the central Goldsboro schools.

"The perception is that you're not getting a good education," she said.

Ms. Sims said in many respects, Wayne County's situation is no different than what other school systems are experiencing because of shifts in housing patterns.

Bell said the board was "getting into areas of certain issues that no one wants to talk about."

He said he thought the meeting was going to be more positive.

"I don't know if I'm coming back to another meeting if it's going in this direction," he said.

He said it was his first meeting with both boards. He said that he had never been to a meeting where the commissioners were "down on the school board" nor did he want to be a part of any bickering.

"I came here expecting everybody to talk about positive things, not to accuse of anything in the past," he said.

Ms. Sims suggested there had to be some discussion of the past in order to move toward the future.

Commissioner Andy Anderson said the meeting was a chance to break the ice, not to get into each other's business.

Dr. Steve Taylor, superintendent of schools, said he had not known what to expect from the meeting, but appreciated the frank discussion.

"You don't take it personally," he said. "Just get things on the table, then go on to something else."