10/21/08 — Duplin commission tries to fix relationship with school board

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Duplin commission tries to fix relationship with school board

By Steve Herring
Published in News on October 21, 2008 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County commissioners sought to dial down the rhetoric Monday and extend an olive branch to the county Board of Education.

However, Commissioner Reginald Wells' motion for board Chairman Harold Raynor to contact school board Chairwoman Emily Manning took a different direction after Raynor responded that Ms. Manning had told him she did not want such a meeting.

That prompted County Manager Mike Aldridge to suggest that the county's Communities Facilities Committee "flesh out some ideas" that might help facilitate a meeting.

Aldridge said he would try to line up a facilitator to help with the meeting as well. He is to bring those ideas back to the board at its Nov. 3 session.

Relations between the two boards have been strained for some time and came to a head in June after commissioners failed to meet the schools' budget request for the second year in a row.

In response, the school board invoked mediation, and then once that failed, sued commissioners in Duplin County Superior Court. A jury last month awarded the schools almost $5 million in additional current expense, but denied $63 million in capital outlay.

The commissioners have appealed the judgment.

Some of those strained feeling were still visible Monday as the commissioners learned of the school board's decision to not cooperate with a planned performance audit by Florida-based Evergreen Solutions, which has been retained by the Board of Commissioners.

Earlier action had been delayed because of the lawsuit, but on Monday, Evergreen's Linda Recio was scheduled to visit Kenans-ville to conduct interviews with several key school officials, including Board of Education members, while at the same time obtaining copies of budgets and other documents.

Those meetings, however, were canceled.

"On Friday, we got word those interviews were being canceled on advice of their attorney," Aldridge said. "That put us and Linda in a bad way. She had already bought plane tickets and made reservations two weeks ago.

"To have the rug pulled out from under us on Friday is a little late notice for a Monday appointment. Everything is on hold until the Board of Education meets and decides if it is going to cooperate with our audit.

"We have authority to demand records, but at this point it is unclear if we have authority to demand that that they participate in interviews."

Aldridge also told commissioners he had received no response from the school board about commissioners' request to make audio recordings of all school board meetings and to post them on the Internet like the commissioners' meetings. In its request the county offered to help with software and hardware.

Wells said that through his motion, he was "speaking to the hearts of those school board members about what is really happening."

"Egos and what has happened in the past have to be set aside," he said. "The only way we can resolve issues for improving Duplin County is through communications.

"This thing is bigger than personalities. It is bigger than egos. It is really about the progression of Duplin County. Until we, the leadership of Duplin County, realize this we are not going anywhere."

Wells said he was appealing to school board members' common sense so the two bodies could sit down and talk.

"We have got to move on," he said. "There are issues on the table that will be here next year."

Wells said he was unsure what had happened to sour the relationship between the two boards over the past year. He said that in the past, the boards had gotten together for breakfast and to talk about issues, but that now there is "so much animosity."

"I don't know if the board is driving this or if the superintendent is," Wells said. "I'd tell him (Superintendent Dr. Wiley Doby) this, he cannot divide us. I think they have allowed him to divide us. We have created a mess.

"I think this board would be willing to pay for breakfast if they would be willing to sit down with us."

He added that both boards, at the end of the day, still have to live together and that there does not have to be such ill will.

Commissioner Zettie Williams offered an amendment to Wells' motion that Aldridge write a letter to the school board about a meeting, possibly through the Community Facilities Committee.

"We have got to do something to let the public know that we want to meet with them (school board members)," she said.

Wells said a meeting might "help their (school board's) image."

"It might not hurt ours either," said Commissioner L.S. Guy.

The Community Facilities Committee, a county strategic planning committee, traces its roots to 2002 and was revamped in 2007.

The committee, made up of Duplin County residents, has met almost every month -- on the fourth Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in the commissioners' meeting room -- since it first formed, Aldridge said.

A second group, the Community Building Committee, focuses on team building and reaching out to others.

Two other committees, one on economic development and the other on education, never materialized and were folded into the Community Facilities Committee.

"We are trying to define strategies that we can implement to make the best of our situation as far as our facilities, basically our infrastructure -- water, sewer, facilities," Aldridge said. "We have, in the last rewrite of our (strategic) plan, education as our top priority. That group took it upon itself to spearhead efforts to promote the sales tax referendum and in doing that we were able to get the Board of Education members involved. We had several of them coming to the meetings.

"I thought it was turning into a good forum for discussing needs for education because it was non-threatening. It has no authority so it was more of a casual get-together."

Aldridge said he hopes to build around that and get people around the table to "flesh out some of these ideas."

"One of the things we talked about the last time we met was that after the suit was over with was what we could do as a committee to help get us off dead center and get the people around the table and start talking," Aldridge said.

"We started throwing out ideas, bullet-point ideas, and we figured for good strategy would be to lay out plan as to what we are going to do, here's how to go about doing it and get it to both boards and get them to buy into it," he said. "They have not really agreed to anything concrete they have just agreed to a concept of what we are trying to do, the mechanics of it.'

He said, it would be "planning a plan."

"I think we can identify things in a non-threatening way to at least get them talking," he said.

He noted that there are no commissioners serving on the committee. All of the members are volunteers.

"I use it as a sounding board as to things going on so I can get public comment on," he said.