Wayne County Commissioner John Bell

Wayne County Commissioner John Bell makes a motion during the board’s Tuesday meeting to support legislation removing a school board’s authority to sue a county and commissioners in a dispute over the level of capital outlay funding. The motion was unanimously approved.

Less than a month after Wayne County Commissioner Joe Daughtery’s attempt to smooth the waters between commissioners and school board, commissioners Tuesday morning voted unanimously to support legislation stripping school boards of their authority to sue counties in disputes over facilities funding levels.

Commissioners also voiced concerns about the county’s low-performing schools.

Commissioner John Bell, who made the motion to support the legislation, said a school board member called him two weeks ago and was talking about taking commissioners to court.

“I assured him, you can take us to court, but you cannot sue the county commissioners — you can sue the citizens of Wayne County, the property owners, the taxpayers,” Bell said. “Those are the ones who you sue.

“There are no winners in the lawsuit. The only people who are going to benefit are the attorneys who file the lawsuit.”

Bell made his comments as the meeting was wrapping up and referred to comments made earlier in the meeting by Fremont Mayor Darron Flowers and Barry Merrill, former Mount Olive Tribune publisher, about the need for school facility improvements.

Bell said that, during his time on the board, eight to 10 new classrooms and a new gym were added at Charles B. Aycock High School; Norwayne and Eastern Wayne middle schools were remodeled; a new gym was added at Rosewood; and work was done at Goldsboro High School, Mount Olive Middle and Brogden Elementary schools.

“And in the past three or four years we have built three brand new schools,” he said. “So, I just wanted the people in the community to know that we have put money in the schools. There has never been any dragging our feet supporting the schools.

“What my main topic today is to talk about the low-performing schools. I don’t care how many buildings you build, it don’t educate children. Now, I don’t know if the school board or school administration are being negligent or inefficient, but the results are the same — kids are not being educated in those low-performing schools.”

Bell said he wants someone to show him a plan as to what they are going to do about the low-performing schools.

Bell said he had never seen that done since he has been on the board. Rather, he said, it has always been about brick and mortar.

Nice facilities are needed, something that Bell said he supports.

“But give me a plan and let me know how you are going to cause kids to read at a fourth-grade level at the end of the fourth grade instead of reading kindergarten,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody else has the same notion as I do, but it should be all about the kids in Wayne County, not some mega building that looks good but does not educate kids.”

It was then that Bell said a resolution had been drafted by county attorneys and County Manager Craig Honeycutt.

The resolution was in support of House Bill 850, which would remove a school board’s authority to sue a county and county commissioners over the funding level of capital outlay funds.

The General Assembly already passed legislation stripping school boards of their authority to sue counties in disputes over current expense funding.

Along with supporting passage of the bill, the resolution asks that the county’s legislative delegation support it as well.

The county has spent $93.2 million for school construction and improvements over the past seven years, according to the resolution.

According to the resolution, the school system has at least 11 low-performing schools, including new and renovated schools, and that more than 37 percent of students in those schools are not proficient in math while 44 percent are not proficient in reading, based on end-of-grade testing.

The resolution calls on the school board to take steps to correct the issues at low-performing schools so that students will receive “a proper education with the funds” provided by the county, state and federal governments.

Commissioner Ed Cromartie, a retired educator, cautioned his fellow board members that they needed to talk with principals about end-of-grade testing before basing so much on test results.

Also, he said that facility needs are not limited to public schools. Wayne Community College has needs as well, he said.

Commissioner Ray Mayo said a majority of people he has spoken to think that the school board reports to commissioners.

That is not the case, and while commissioners have to fund the school system, they do not have any authority as to how the money is spent, Mayo said.

As far as low-performing schools, some people say that teachers are not being paid enough and that “we should throw money at it,” he said.

That could be part of the problem, but money is not necessarily the No. 1 priority, Mayo said. In the private and probably public sectors, the top priority is a good place to work, he said.

Secondly, Mayo said, the teachers he has talked with feel like they are out of place because they have no authority in the classroom for discipline.

Mayo said he agrees with Bell about a need to get back to basics and to figure out how to better educate children to be the county’s future leaders.

It is time to stop making excuses and get busy with the teachers already in the county and who have been here for years, he said. Teachers who have been here that long have got to have the dedication, or maybe they are being overlooked, he said.

They, like workers in the private sector, need to feel like they are wanted and needed, Mayo said.

Daughtery called the numbers cited in the resolution “mind boggling” and “devastating.”

“If you are a teacher teaching in Wayne County, and you are teaching at a low-performing school, undoubtedly the needs of those students are far greater, far greater than you would find of students in non-low-performing schools.”

Teachers who leave for other systems, such as Johnston County, are not faced with that dilemma, but also have better facilities and make more money because of higher teacher supplements, he said.

“So, even though money is not the solution to it all, I think that this board does need to be cognizant of the fact that we do need to look at our supplements and make sure that we are at least competitive to retain good teachers here so that they don’t go over to Johnston County,” Daughtery said. “So, I would just ask that we look at the entire picture.”

Commissioners Bill Pate and Wayne Aycock offered little hope of that happening, saying instead that now is not the time for a tax increase because farming — the county’s top economic engine — is still struggling to recover from two major hurricanes.

Cromartie countered that it would not be an increase, but rather restoring property taxes to a level that had existed prior to commissioners consistently lowering the level over recent years.