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Racial tension hits Duplin school board meeting

Former Warsaw Mayor Win Batten spoke at last Tuesday’s school board meeting, expressing concerns that plans on the table for new schools could perpetuate de facto segregation. (staff photo by BARRY MERRILL)
By Barry Merrill
Tribune Publisher
Last Tuesday night the public got another chance to weigh in on the proposed expansion of the K-8 schools in Duplin County to replace old schools, still in operation as middle schools. Most of the dozen speakers at the official public hearing spoke strongly in favor of the school board moving ahead, and all the white speakers, except one. A few black speakers raised various questions about the plan, but they seemed to unite behind the one white speaker who rose to oppose the plan.
Former Warsaw mayor Win Batten, who still attends many county meetings, called the plan a move to continue segregated schools in the county. His comments were one of the few to draw applause from the crowd at Kenan Auditorium.
He went on to say the one key factor in determining school performance was socio-economic, and at Warsaw Elementary, he stated that over 90% of the students are on free or reduced lunch, reflecting the poverty in the Warsaw community. He said Warsaw Middle has similar percentages, and by combining the two schools into a K-8 was "putting poverty on poverty."
The whites who spoke said the county needed the new buildings, and the time had past to discuss, it was time to act. They also pointed to the success of K-8s in other parts of the county.
County Commissioner Frances Parks praised the school board for patiently listening, and for coming up with a school construction plan that used existing funds and respected the county's taxpayers.
Former County Commissioners Chairman Zettie Williams asked where the money was coming from to fund the schools, saying she felt the school board was putting the taxpayers at risk with a proposal to fund the schools over a long term. She reasoned that revenue streams might change over time.
School Board Member Brent Davis said the money to pay for the proposed three school expansions with new classrooms would come from restricted sales tax money and the existing appropriation to the schools.
School Board Member Hubert Bowden closed the meeting with a statement that the schools were missing an opportunity with new schools to address redistricting. He suggested by not addressing the racial makeup of the schools across the county, the schools were inviting a lawsuit.
School Board Chairman Chuck Farrior kept the comments limited, and allowed questions to the school board, but avoided any significant back-and-forth with school board members and the public, saying other questions could be answered after the meeting. No vote on the plan occurred during the meeting. The plan was on the agenda of this Tuesday’s meeting, and a vote on the plan was expected to occur at that time.

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