Last night, the Bertie County Board of Education held a special called meeting, hearing recommendations on transitioning students from low-enrollment public schools to different sites. The eventual outcome would be closing schools that impact the fewest number of students.
At the opening of the meeting, Board Chairwoman Tarsha Dudley (District 5) explained that the session was to listen to data-based evidence and hear community comments. She stated that it is “not economically sound” to keep the current configuration in place. However, the assured that many meetings will convene to study the issues at hand before making final decisions.
Although it sounds scary to many to explore closing schools, every child in Bertie will still receive an education. If any site closes, children will move to a different location. Therefore, the term transitioning might be more precise than closing.
Dropping Enrollment Is Causing Financial Strain on the Bertie County Public School System
School Superintendent Dr. Otis Smallwood presented a slide show outlining the finances. He also recommended the steps he believes the BOE should explore. Here are the key takeaways.
The Bertie County Public School system has seen a drop in enrollment. For example, they educated 2,453 students in the 2015-2016 school year but currently serve only 1,917 children. As a result, they struggle to provide sound educational programming, competitive staff salaries, and pay for utilities, continuous repairs, and building maintenance.
The chart below shows how the per-student funding, or allotment, decreased each year based on the declining student population.
In other words, current trends predict that the cost of keeping every door open will eventually lead to a funding shortfall. As enrollment declined, other costs have not. For instance, here are the utility expenses at each school site:
Superintendent’s Recommendations for Transitioning Students, and Reconfiguring or Closing Schools
Based on enrollment data, the number of unused classrooms, utility expenses, and projected building repair costs, Smallwood asked the Board to explore the possibility of three fundamental changes.
Also, Smallwood noted that reconfiguring, transitioning, or closing schools should occur gradually over the next three years.
Smallwood’s outlined his suggestions in this slide:
Besides recommending these changes, Smallwood also considered the pros and cons of transitioning students and vacating some buildings. Primarily, the pros include significant savings on physical building repairs and maintenance. For example, you can see the analysis for Bertie Early College High School below:
Public Comments Regarding Transitioning Students and Closing Schools
✔️Bertie County Commissioner Vice Chair Ron Wesson appeared before the BOE to comment on potential building vacancies. He noted that the BOE has a legal obligation to offer the first opportunity to purchase any building they wish to sell to Bertie County at fair market value. Wesson had an idea, explaining that non-profits and agencies within the county need space. The Early College building vacancy presents a unique opportunity for these non-profits that serve the citizens of Bertie County.
✔️One local woman agreed, noting that “when you close a building, the community around it dies,” seemingly in agreement with Wesson that repurposing any vacated school is necessary. She also implored the Board not to make any changes without considering how saving the money will impact educational standards.
✔️In addition, Reverend Jason Duvall of the Carolina Rebuilding Ministry expressed interest in utilizing potential vacant space in Bertie County. His ministry, previously highlighted by Bertie News, provides free home repair services for low-income homeowners in the county. Right now, prospective clients must travel to their office in Plymouth to apply for aid. Duvall explained that this ministry currently has 27 Bertie homeowners on a waitlist for services. An office within the county would well serve their efforts.
✔️Debra Freeman, the Executive Director of the Good Shepherd Food Pantry of Bertie County, NC, also expressed the need for additional space. Their building on King Street is a blessing, Freeman noted. However, they are running out of room as their programming expands. That makes sense–according to Good Shepherd’s website, the agency distributed over 300,000 pounds of food to Bertie citizens last year.
No Decisions Are Final Yet Regarding Closing Schools or Moving Children to Other Sites
At the end of the meeting, Chairwoman Dudley reiterated that this session was to hear input and ideas. She assured the public that they will host several meetings, hear input, and review data before final determinations. She reiterated that they will continue to serve all Bertie children and welcome public input as they study these options.