02/13/08 — Closed meetings helped pave way for agreement

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Closed meetings helped pave way for agreement

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 13, 2008 1:53 PM

Pleased by the $23 million school facilities plan agreed on late last year, and encouraged by what they are describing as an improved relationship with the school board, the Wayne County commissioners say the recent intervention by members of the local business community has had a lot to do with the breakthrough.

In October, after meeting by themselves for more than a year, more than two dozen local business leaders decided it was time to bring the school board and the county commission together to discuss what to do about the public school system.

Included in the discussions were not only facility needs, but also academic needs, particularly workforce development.

But perhaps most notable, was the fact that these meetings -- involving three commissioners and three school board members -- were all held behind closed doors until the announcement of the $23 million facilities plan in December.

It was an arrangement that some commissioners admitted made them feel uneasy, but it also was one that they all agreed was ultimately successful.

Representing the commissioners were John Bell, Jack Best and Andy Anderson. Representing the school board were Thelma Smith, John Grantham and George Moye.

"I had some mixed feelings on it," Anderson admitted. "We all felt a little concerned doing what we did because it was a little borderline."

But, he explained, because three members from each board participated, none of the meetings constituted a quorum, no action was ever taken and no public notifications were required.

"The way we did it, it was just a group of concerned citizens getting together to talk," Anderson said. "We just tried to come up with a plan about what we could do without getting the public riled up. It was just looking at what needs to be done, what can be done and what ideas we had."

And, he continued, given the vocal history of disagreement between the two boards, it was probably the only way members would talk freely with each other.

"I don't think they could have gotten together in the spotlight," Commissioner Atlas Price said.

"I didn't go to the meetings, but I'm sure there were some harsh words," Commissioner Efton Sager added.

But, they continued, once free of the newspapers, microphones and cameras, it gradually became easier to find common ground.

"It allowed people to open up, without pointing fingers, and not mind talking about the situation and the conditions, and it just worked out that we came to some positive thinking on how to move forward," Bell said. "Educating kids is both our responsibilities. We have to work together."

And, he continued, while they all knew that, it took a third party to make it happen.

"We could not have done it without their help," he said.

"We just needed to get started," Best added. "We were basically at a stalemate. But those meeting accomplished so much.

"Now we've got to move forward positively. Our goal is to have the very best education system in the state of North Carolina."