07/29/08 — Wayne Board eyes Duplin schools fight

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Wayne Board eyes Duplin schools fight

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 29, 2008 1:42 PM

The controversial battles faced by Duplin County Public Schools -- consolidation and closure of schools, legal mediation and the ongoing funding debate with the Duplin County Commission, to name a few -- are being watched closely by their counterparts on the Wayne County Board of Education.

The consensus is one of empathy, since the Wayne County school system has faced its own struggles over the years. But for the most part, school board members are not fearful that a similar scenario will play out locally.

The situation has been difficult to watch, Board Chairwoman Thelma Smith said.

"It doesn't serve the county or the community well," she said. "I'm sure everybody feels they're right in what they're doing, but there's got to be a middle ground in there somewhere."

Building consensus between boards can be a challenge, said Mrs. Smith, who began her leadership year with a mission to accomplish common ground between the Board of Education and county commission. Any time there is division, she noted, "very little can be done and there can be animosity."

Watching a neighboring school system undergo such a struggle "doesn't make us feel good" as a school board, Mrs. Smith said.

Board member Dave Thomas said he understands that school systems can take legal action against commissioners, but should only do so as a last resort, "when all other options are taken care of."

The local quarter cent sales tax is a prime example, he said. While some inroads have been made on funding from the commission for a $23 million portion, Thomas said he still believes the referendum would not have been defeated in the last election. If it had been presented differently -- 50 percent for communication and 50 percent for school facilities.

"I believe it would have had a better chance of passing," he said. "We have 19,000 students approximately, if half of those parents voted for the referendum to help facilities, I think we should have had that in that referendum."

Calling it a "very sad situation," board member Pete Gurley is concerned about the amount of money being drained from Duplin County's coffers that could have gone to hire teachers and the like.

"Obviously it's very expensive to the taxpayers, and the attorneys are the only winners out of that," he said.

Without assigning blame, Gurley said there is a "lesson to be learned" and commissioners, often referred to as "the funding fathers," would be wise to look at the situation very closely.

"I think it's a shame that (Duplin) commissioners can't see the value of education," he said. "Those folks haven't had any increase in their budget for two years -- there's no way you can operate on a two-years-ago budget. ... I don't blame the Board of Education in Duplin County one bit. I think they'll do what they have to do."

Any district with similar funding concerns, Gurley added, would probably have the same response. Still, he noted, it is not something he envisions happening in Wayne County.

"I really hope that our people in Wayne County and the county commissioners can see the value of going ahead and funding at least an ample program without it coming down to this," he said. "I really can't see ours coming to this because I think our commissioners are beginning to see that they're going to have to come up with some funding."

Efforts to resolve local funding issues seem to be moving in a positive direction of late, Gurley said, and he "can see some light at the end of the tunnel."

"As far as the current expense budget, I really can't say that I can complain a lot," he said. "Would we like to have more? No question about it, but you do with what you have got."

There is no easy answer to the Duplin situation, a county with a "very limited tax base," board member Rick Pridgen said.

"I hate that they're having to go through the process that they're having to go through," he said. "I'm sure the commissioners have had to make some difficult decisions, and the Board of Education, too.

"It's very unfortunate that maybe the public didn't have more input in the closing of the school. ... I know decisions have to be made when you don't have the funds to keep in operation."

Board member Shirley Sims empathizes with her counterparts in Duplin County, as she would any school system experiencing a similar difficulty. Perhaps moreso, though, because she hails from the southern end of the county, where she has close ties because of family and friends.

"It just saddens me that it has to happen this way," she said. "I don't know if there's time to go back to the table and renegotiate -- just give some consideration to what would be a better way that they could get more support, garner some support for whatever is best for the boys and girls."

Any time a major decision is made that impacts an entire community, though, efforts should be made to enlist public support, Ms. Sims said.

"I think we all need to keep that in mind, not only commissioners but any governing body," she said.

Certainly, though, arbitration or mediation have proven to be an option, said board member George Moye, who recalled when that happened locally nearly two decades ago.

"In 1990, 1991, we actually had to go to mediation, and we got several hundred thousand dollars, but it was not nearly as expensive a process as they're talking about in Duplin County," he said. Taking into account current legal fees, he added, "It would certainly be beneficial to the citizens of Duplin County to get it resolved quickly. ...

"It's getting to the point, it will become even more divisive than it is now if they don't get it resolved."

John P. Grantham feels there is more to the story than what has been publicized.

Nevertheless, if decisions were made "behind the scenes," he would be opposed.

"If it wasn't above-board, the people have a legitimate beef," he said.

As for legal mediation, Grantham reserves judgment lacking sufficient information.

"I guess I have read it in the paper like everybody else," he said. "I don't really feel like it's my business to tell people over there how to run their schools."