Duplin leaders address planned meeting
By Steve Herring
Published in News on November 10, 2008 1:57 PM
KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County's commissioners might be a step closer to a meeting with the county's Board of Education and deeper discussion of a plan to improve school facilities.
But a county commissioner says a community facilities committee's involvement is sending the wrong message -- that the elected officials will not meet without the committee's urging.
During a meeting last week, Commissioner Zettie Williams expressed her displeasure at any public misunderstanding of the committee's role.
The issue started when commissioners accepted a suggestion by County Manager Mike Aldridge last month to ask the committee, formed in 2002, to help arrange a meeting between the two boards. Aldridge said he hoped informal public meetings between the two boards could begin in January. He said meetings about school facilities should be held around the county as well.
But Mrs. Williams said Aldridge should have contacted school officials, not left it to the committee.
"You are misinterpreting the general feeling of the board," she told Aldridge. "We have asked for a meeting with the Board of Education, and we have been sitting here waiting for a response from them and we agreed to input from the facilities committee. You are saying we are too divided to be able to meet. Our feelings on the board from the last meeting I'd say is that if they said they would meet tomorrow, we would meet tomorrow."
Aldridge said he had postponed sending a letter to the Board of Education asking for the meeting because he wanted to be able to share more information what the meeting would entail.
He said he get the invitation in the mail immediately.
"I had wanted to get past this first," he said, adding that he wanted something concrete for the two boards to talk about.
Mrs. Williams disagreed, saying the two boards need to meet face to face first.
Committee member Jim Harris said Mrs. Williams was wrong.
"The only purpose we have is to get the facts on the table for when you do meet. If you meet and you do not know what the facilities are going to cost, and you don't know what existing facilities are costing this county now, there is no way you can make a logical decision until you have facts on the table.
"All we would like to do is get our people and their people together and talk these things out. Put it on paper so that when you do have that meeting you can make an intelligent decision when you make one. With the conflict between the two boards, without some facts you are just going to get in the same position you are in now and nothing will be accomplished."
Commissioner David Fussell said he wants the committee to suggest how the county would finance new school buildings.
"We have got to have a business plan," Fussell said. 'We can dream all kinds of things. How is the best way to invest?"
Commissioner L.S. Guy said the groups' must accept the fact that the existing facilities plan will be on the minds of everyone involved in the talks.
"I think some of the divisiveness that has brought us to this point is the content of the plan," he said.
Aldridge said he does not believe most people truly understand the proposed building plan.
"People do not really understand what the plan is," he said, adding that educating the public will be crucial to its success.
Aldridge said the committee is only trying to help facilitate reasonable discussion bet-ween the two boards.
"We feel, as an informal group of interested citizens, that we could have some influence on that process, so this what we began to work on, how we could flesh out how we, as a committee, could be of use in a role of getting the boards together to create some dialogue."
Aldridge said commissioners might feel more at liberty in an informal setting to discuss issues without standing at a podium under the spotlight.
He said committee members thought they could help with that. He suggested that each board appoint one of its members to the committee.
Well was appointed as the commission's representative.
"It was the consensus of our group that we could help both boards develop a positive plan for moving forward with providing school facilities," Aldridge said.
Both sides, he said, will have to acknowledge there are some "big white elephants" in the room and set them aside, especially the funding dispute between the two boards and the lawsuit filed against the county by the Board of Education.
"We need to acknowledge that, but not let it stop the whole train," Aldridge said. "We have to knowledge there are differences of opinion in the public about the (school facilities) plan that has already been adopted by the Board of Education and try to move forward with what the common ground is that we can proceed with."
The school board invoked mediation in June after commissioners cut the school system's budget. Once that failed to resolve the conflict, the school board sued commissioners in Duplin County Superior Court. In September a jury awarded the schools nearly $5 million in additional current expense, but denied $63 million in capital outlay.
Commissioners have ap-pealed the judgment.
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