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Commissioners get answers from Duplin School Board
8/29/2014 11:58:40 AM

ANSWERING QUESTIONS - Duplin school board members responded to questions from Commissioner Tim Smith during last Tuesday’s special meeting. Among those responding were (from left) Jennings Outlaw, Brent Davis and Hubert Bowden. (Staff photo by BARRY MERRILL)
By Barry Merrill
Tribune Publisher
The Duplin School Board called a special meeting last Tuesday to respond to questions from the county commissioners raised at a recent joint meeting of the two boards, but some of the historic friction between the two boards as well as some of the racial tension threatened the meeting.
When School Board Chairman Chuck Farrior opened the meeting in the regular school board meeting room, he opened the floor to public comment, Mary Morrisey of Warsaw attempted to question the board over their failure to address the Black community's concern over the failure to change attendance districts for low performing lower socio-economic schools such as Warsaw Middle.
Chairman Farrior was able to defer Ms. Morrisey's questions, saying questioning board members was not normally allowed in the public comment section of the board meeting, and County Commissioner Jesse Dowe had submitted her questions requesting the school board to respond, and they would be dealing with her questions at that time.
County Commissioner Tim Smith had been their chief questioner at the previous meeting, and he formalized his questions to the school board that afternoon, and Mr. Farrior allowed Mr. Smith to comment and follow up as he attended the first half of the meeting.
The meeting was intended to answer questions over financing, and Mr. Smith was full of such questions. He began with what fund balance do the schools have that would be available to help lower borrowing for facilities?
Several responded there were no funds that were not encumbered.
He questioned how the schools selected an architect, asking if they had sought competitive bids. He was informed that was not how the state allows architects to be selected.
School Board member Jennings Outlaw alluded to the historic problems between the two boards in response to Mr. Smith's suggestion that the costs of construction financed should allow for the long-discussed improvement to the county's high school. He said the board felt this was an immediate need and was practical to get through the county, but he said the high schools were "another can of worms."
If the construction plan was held up until the high schools were settled, "we will be sitting here ten years from now with nothing done," Mr. Outlaw concluded.
School Board Member Brent Davis also went back to old problems after Mr. Smith raised objections to the school board suggesting that financing for the K-8 plan before the commissioners could be financed for 40 years to help avoid a tax increase. "We gave you a high school plan that required a 6-8¢ tax increase, and it goes nowhere."
Mr. Smith remained determined that he would push for a much shorter financing period, and suggested general obligation bonds were the best financing alternative.
He asked if there were any parts of the proposed construction that could be left out, but the school board members said they did not feel any part could be left out or delayed.
Mr. Smith left the meeting, and the board responded to the list of questions from Commissioner Dowe which had been formulated by a Black Citizens group. Mr. Dowe explained as a new commissioner who had not attended the hearings on the plan and wanted to hear the answers.
Mr. Farrior said he believed the questions had been answered in the hearing, and the intent of the meeting was to answer questions on financing, but they would answer his questions out of respect to the commissioner.
Many of the questions centered on the projected $1.3 million annual savings the advocates of the plan put together. They have suggested that the schools could save the money in the reduction of 16 county schools down to 13, reducing support personnel. Between custodians, counsellors, office staff and assistant principals, nurses and media, they expected they would see those savings.
When a finance officer suggested there were no clear savings, Superintendent Austin Obasahan said his administration was committed to carrying out whatever plan the school board passed. They were not there to debate the plan.
Mr. Outlaw defended the projected savings as realistic, pointing out that they were talking about less than 2% of the schools budget while lowering the number of schools in the county by almost 30%.
School Board Member Pam Edwards delivered an impassioned response to the critics of the plan, saying in her years as a teacher and serving on the school board, she had been in education for 38 years, and she was frustrated seeing the facilities in the county continue to fall behind neighboring counties. She noted that every high school in the county was at least 50 years old.
"I'm sick that we can't provide the same quality facilities as other counties. Every child in this county deserves a quality education."
The four white school board members were asked to defend not using the construction as an opportunity to address re-districting, but Mr. Farrior and others responded they did not want to tell people where to live.
Mr. Davis and other board members said they had devoted bonuses to James Kenan to bring the best teachers available to the school. "It's gonna take additional resources; it's not going to take bricks and mortar. We strive and try to treat each school equally," Mr. Davis concluded.
Mr. Dowe thanked the school board for their answers.

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