LAURINBURG — Despite strong opposition from those at public hearings, the Scotland County Board of Education voted unanimously Monday night to close Covington Street and North Laurinburg elementary schools at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
There were two 30-minute public input sessions before the vote with about 40 people each hearings. Speakers were given three minutes to speak.
In total 13 people spoke, all of whom were opposed to closing the schools and urged the board to reconsider. Nine people took the podium during the hearing for Covington Street and four spoke during the North Laurinburg hearing.
Thomas Locklear, life-long resident of Scotland County, said he was opposed to the closing of both elementary schools.
“I hope you will rethink and consider the people you are going to lay this burden on,” Locklear said. “As a taxpayer, we cannot afford this plan. When you remove a community school, you sign the death certificate of that community.”
Laurinburg resident Robert Macy said he was flabbergasted that the board was even considering closing Covington Street Elementary School.
“I understand that some of our schools were old or older and by reducing the average age of schools and the plan is to use Covington Street as an early college (SEarCH) campus,” he said. “I wonder how long we are going to use that school before it’s too old we need a new school. I understand St. Andrews has a wonderful problem of expansion however we’re talking about our children that are being bounced from campus to campus.”
Laurinburg Mayor Matthew Block asked the board why they are going through with consolidation when it’s not something the public wants.
“I would hope that at some point you tell us exactly why you’re going through with this,” Block said. “It seems to me that there is universal opposition to this among parents, teachers, students that it’s going to cause a lot of chaos and confusion. There is no cost savings to the taxpayers here. You’re going to embark on a $35 to $40 million project that you’re going to pay for by gradually eliminating 40 positions.”
Block said the school board is misleading the public that there is going to be cost savings. it’s half truths, the taxpayers aren’t going to save any money with this consolidation.”
“It’s half truths,” he said. “The taxpayers aren’t going to save any money with this consolidation.”
Chairman of the Laurinburg/Scotland County Chamber of Commerce John Ferguson was the only speaker in favor of the closures because Richmond Community College plans for Covington Street Elementary School. The school would be used for Scotland’s Early College and RCC programs
“I want to emphasize the critical need for the support of Richmond Community College investment in a Scotland County campus required for RCC to qualify for full campus designation in our county,” Ferguson said. “The Honeycutt Center’s satellite campus has given our community improved access to education and opportunities. The proposal to utilize the Covington Street School property for RCC expansion home of SEarCH is appropriate given the proximity to the Honeycutt Center and the Morgan Complex.”
Board of Education Chair Jeff Byrd expressed surprised by the sparse attendance at the public hearings and the misinformation spread by many of the speakers.
“I was very surprised by how few people came. I thought from reading petitions online and people’s outcry about closing schools I thought there would be more people,” Byrd said. “This has been a long three-year process. I think we’ve been pretty straight forward with what the plan has been the whole time, how it’s going to save money and that taxpayers dollars aren’t going to be used to build a school — we are using money that has been designated to build the school. It’s going to save money over the long term and save taxpayers dollars.”
The hearings were required before school officials could put out bids for the construction of additions to Laurel Hill and Sycamore Lane Elementary schools.
Pinnacle Architecture co-owner Randy Baker told the board at its Committee of the Whole meeting last month that bids needed to go out by mid-to-late June to have the additions completed by August 2018 and avoid an increase construction costs. Construction would also include expanding parent pick-up lanes at both schools to make traffic flow better and get cars off the main road.
This is the second round of closures the board has voted on, despite public push back. In 2015, the board closed Washington Park Elementary School and Pate-Gardner Elementary School and sent those students to Sycamore Lane, a former middle school. Students from Sycamore Lane were transferred to the county’s two remaining middle schools — Carver Middle School and Spring Hill Middle School.
If the board continues with its consolidation plan two more elementary schools are slated be closed, I. Ellis Johnson and South Scotland, those students would be moved to the new elementary school the board plans to construct. A location for the new elementary school has not been decided, but the board did received schematics on Monday from Pinnacle Architecture on a two-story elementary school on the site where the A.B. Gibson Center currently sits.