07/16/08 — Duplin school protestors challenge closure plan

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Duplin school protestors challenge closure plan

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 16, 2008 1:44 PM

KENANSVILLE -- School consolidation opponents say their presence at Tuesday night's Duplin County Board of Education meeting spoke loudly even though they were not allowed to speak.

It was standing room only as close to 100 people wedged into the school board's meeting room in a display of solidarity and opposition to the proposed consolidation of North Duplin Jr.-Sr. High School at Calypso, James Kenan High School at Warsaw and B.F. Grady Middle School near Albertson.

All three school communities were represented at the meeting to protest the board's 4-2 consolidation vote last week.

The issue was not on last week's agenda, but was added by board member Reginald Kenan. Public bodies can amend agendas at the start of their meetings. However, school supporters said the school board handled the issue in an "underhanded" way to avoid the public.

Tuesday's meeting format did not allow for public comment, but each school board member and Supt. Dr. Wiley Doby found a packet of petitions with more than 500 signatures at their seats. The petitions express opposition to the consolidation and call for Doby's ouster and a formal investigation of the school board.

Board member Jennings Outlaw, who with Willie Gillespie voted against consolidation, received a round of applause when he entered the room.

Board Chairman Emily Manning commented on the size of the crowd.

"I know you came to share some positive opinions, but I would ask that you come back on Aug. 5 -- that will be the appropriate time for that," she said. "I do have the petitions. Please come back on Aug. 5 so we can hear from you."

Tuesday's meeting was mostly behind closed doors as the board met with attorneys to discuss ongoing mediation with county commissioners over school funding.

Supporters filtered out of the meeting, but only a handful left. Others stood in small groups or brought out chairs as they waited to see what, if anything, the board would do after returning to open session.

The board returned to open session around 10 p.m. and announced that East Duplin High School principal Ben Thigpen would be the new director of high schools replacing Charlie Blanchard who is now Principal at James Kenan. James Kenan Assistant Principal Scott Ballard was announced as the new East Duplin principal. No other action was taken.

Henry Carr, president of the North Duplin Jr.-Sr. High School Advisory Board, addressed school supporters from the steps of the school board building.

He said plans were progressing on a planned demonstration on Aug. 5 from 4 to 7 p.m. in front of the school board building and encouraged persons to participate.

"I thought we had a good turnout particularly since everyone knew we were not going to be able to speak tonight, that it was just a show of bodies to prove we are concerned about what decisions are made," he said in an interview after his speech.

"It is commendable that people show up knowing they would not be able to speak and take time out of their busy schedules," he said.

Chris Currie, pastor of the Calypso Presbyterian Church, said his two children are not school age, but that he wanted to support his church members.

"The whole idea of community neighborhood schools has proven, I think, to be a more viable educational option than larger, less-personal schools, and I am here to support that," he said.

He said people in his church want to support their schools in a "positive way."

"We have a close-knit community and our church has a close relationship with North Duplin," he said. "We have members who are tutors. I am here to support people in our church family who feel strongly about keeping North Duplin as a community neighborhood school. I think tonight's pretty representative. There is no antagonistic spirit among the people that are here. I'd like folks to know it is not folks going on a rampage, but more of a positive support for our local school."

North Duplin graduate Jannah Pate, who has two children, ages 9 and 7 in the North Duplin schools, said "It (school) is in our heart and it means a lot to keep this school for my children and for all the other children so I want to see it stay."

"When we heard it (consolidation vote) last week we were at a ball game -- we were shocked, we were shocked," said Mrs. Pate, whose father, Jim Saint-Amand, was a coach and teacher at the school for 31 years. "Then I felt betrayal that our school board could take such a measure for a school that is so successful in all areas from academics to athletics. We have strong community support. I was very letdown that our board of education could do something like this to such a fine school and community."

No land has been purchased for the new consolidated school that could be built in the Westbrooks Crossroads community in the James Kenan School District.

Mrs. Pate expressed concerns about the travel time involved to a school at that location.

"I have heard it could take some children 40 minutes to get to the school," she said. "I would go from five minutes to 20 minutes. It would be a hardship for students and parents. I do not believe we would have the community support we have now at North Duplin. I do not believe we would have the participation in after-school and weekend activities, it would just change a lot for our community."

Mrs. Pate called North Duplin the "bond that holds and keeps us together."

"I feel if North Duplin goes, we will all go," she said. "I would like to see us keep our community school. Everybody is motivated more than ever to do whatever it takes to fight the fight to keep your school."