01/24/10 — Duplin school seeks staff's advice

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Duplin school seeks staff's advice

By Catharin
Published in News on January 24, 2010 1:50 AM

Confusion over school facilities planning in Duplin County has consultant Jeff Tsai of the Operations Research/Education La-boratory at North Carolina State University looking to the county's Board of Education for direction.

The school board hired the lab in September and agreed to pay $17,000 for Tsai to perform a demographics and transportation study of the county's school system.

The board wanted guidance for future school facilities planning, but the scope of such projects must first be defined by the school district, Tsai said.

On Jan. 11, Tsai presented to the board five possible sites for locating a new high school in the county, causing some school board members to question the direction of Tsai's research.

"I'm missing something. I understand what you're doing, but it looks very different to me than what I thought you were doing," Jennings Outlaw commented during the Jan. 11 board meeting.

After the meeting, Tsai said the starting point for his research had changed over time as the school board made decisions that affected the direction it took. The plans he presented Jan. 11 were not derived from the original starting point, he said.

"It wasn't my starting point prior to that (Dec. 15) meeting. The starting point before was actually to reconvene the committee that worked on this particular issue before," Tsai said, referring to a committee that had been working previously on the issue.

The latest meeting last week did not provide the guidance he was looking for, Tsai said.

"I need them to tell me, because when they give me a scope as wide as this one, and knowing there has been historical disagreement, they have to do homework and do some scope. I can't approach it like a shotgun. If I approach it like a shotgun, all I do is create more decisions they have to make," Tsai said.

Some of Tsai's information on the school board's Dec. 15 vote about the issue came from architect Robert Ferris, chief executive officer of SFL+a, an architect firm currently investigating possible tax credits the county could receive for building a new high school.

Ferris has served Duplin County as a consultant since 2004, the same year the school board decided not to hire Tsai as a consultant. At the time, Tsai told the board his area of expertise did not cover what board members were seeking. The school board voted in June of 2004 to pay Ferris' firm $35,000.

"He (Ferris) was instrumental in developing a committee and guidance to the process, prior to me coming to this project," Tsai said.

Tsai talked with Ferris about what had been agreed upon by the school board, "just to get clear about what decisions were already made," he said.

"He (Ferris) was the one who informed me about the last school board meeting, which I do not remember the date, when they made the decision to select to consolidate. ... That was the information that I got and confirmed with the school district, that was my starting point," Tsai said.

Tsai did confirm the information with the Duplin County school system before moving forward with the site selection planning, he said.

"The only contact I had was with the school chair (Reginald Kenan) talking about that decision that was made, and that's where I started," he said.

The decisions the school board is faced with making are complicated. Besides the North Duplin and James Kenan High School consolidation issue, there are also decisions that must be made concerning other schools, Tsai said.

"What I had asked for them, there are many layers of decisions they have to make. What do they want to do with B.F. Grady? Do they want to convert that to K-5, is that decision already made? The middle schools have to go somewhere. The high schools have to go somewhere," Tsai said.

"Somehow, I cannot get a real clear message from them about where those decisions have already been made," he said.

The presentation on Jan. 11 was based on the information Tsai learned from Ferris and confirmed with the school district, taking into account the high school consolidation as a given factor. Working from that point, the goal of his research became determining where the consolidated high school should be placed, he said.

But the sites presented at the meeting would be the mathematically calculated best sites for locating a high school in Duplin County, regardless of whether North Duplin and James Kenan High School are consolidated, Tsai said.

"I did give them some pretty concrete recommendations where they should look for property," he said.

At the moment, Tsai is waiting for the board to provide him with decisions on the scope of the project and guidance for moving forward.

"I am waiting for any directions," he said.