Duplin County staff concerned about consolidation plans
By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on August 20, 2009 1:46 PM
KENANSVILLE -- School consolidation and an open enrollment policy could hurt Duplin County students, several high school principals told the Board of Education Tuesday night.
At the request of the school board, all five of the county's high school principals attended the meeting to add their thoughts to the ongoing discussion of the county's school facilities.
Charles Blanchard, principal of James Kenan High School in Kenansville gave the board a brief history lesson of school consolidation in Duplin County and urged board members to form a plan to address students' needs before moving forward.
The school board in the 1950s consolidated multiple small high schools into four schools, "no matter the turmoil" it faced from the community, he said.
"They had the insight to comprehensively look at the best high schools for our kids at one time," Blanchard said.
It took seven years to complete the four schools, which are still in operation today, and Blanchard told board members to expect that any consolidation efforts today will likely take as long to complete. But the key word is comprehensive, he said.
"We need to develop a comprehensive high school program for this entire county. We need to go back to that wisdom. We don't need to barge ahead and just build a high school."
As for open enrollment, Blanchard said he had never heard of it being used at large in a county-wide school system during his more than 40 years of working in education. He also spoke against the idea of placing a high school near the event center in Kenansville.
"I can really see Larry the Cable Guy going on on a Friday night while I'm trying to hold a football game," Blanchard said.
And as a taxpayer, "I would fight it tooth and nail," he said.
The board must consider not only immediate needs but the long term as well before making any moves to build new schools, Blanchard advised.
Open enrollment could have major negative impact on some schools, some principals said. Pulling student populations away from smaller schools would shortchange students left behind in the older facilities, said Debra Hunter, principal of North Duplin Junior/Senior High School.
"If we lose our students, we're going to lose teachers, we're going to lose academics, we're going to lose athletic programs," she said.
All the county schools have needs, and building one new high school and allowing open enrollment is not the answer, Mrs. Hunter said.
"It's not fair to put so much effort on one school when we all have needs," she said.
Kevin Smith, principal of the county's new Early College High School said his school already operates on a restricted open enrollment system and raised questions about how an open enrollment system for the entire county would work. Some students living in the farther ends of the county could end up riding on buses for up to four hours a day just to get to and from school, he said.
Scott Ballard, principal at East Duplin High School, reported that an open enrollment policy might not harm his school's students, but it probably would not help the overcrowded school, either.
East Duplin is "bursting at the seams" with students, largely due to the influx of military families into the area, he said. The school has nearly 1,000 students and is experiencing problems in finding room for all of them.
"We need more space, we need more buildings," Ballard said, adding that his school never received the modular classroom units he requested months ago.
"I've got classes in weight rooms," he said. "...every little nook and cranny is full of students."
An open enrollment policy would likely not harm his school, but would not solve the overcrowding issue, Ballard said, and he agreed with Smith's assessment of possible transportation issues.
Jeff Thigpen, director of transportation agreed that transportation could be a challenge if the county moved to a central consolidated high school, and the system could even lose funding if its efficiency scores drop.
Efficiency evaluations look at the number of students and the number of buses in a county and how much money is spent on transportation every year, and having to bus students from all corners of the county to Kenansville would probably mean losing efficiency points, Thigpen said.
A loss of efficiency points could result in a $20,000 reduction in funding for every point lost, he told board members.
And for the county's other existing high schools, fallout from a move open enrollment could be tremendous in other ways, said Wallace-Rose Hill High School principal M.D. Guthrie. With fewer students to support Advanced Placement classes, schools might not be able to justify having teachers for those or other classes, he said.
But school board member Reginald Kenan said he doesn't think multiple small schools are the answer to the county's needs.
Board members requested county population density information before proceeding and decided to place the item on the agenda at every meeting in the future.