LAURINBURG — The question of consolidating the county’s public schools proved a polarizing issue among the five challengers and three incumbents who spoke in a Tuesday candidate forum while seeking election to the Scotland County Board of Education.
A total of nine candidates will appear on next month’s primary ballot for three seats representing the Stewartsville township: Laurinburg pediatrician Jeff Byrd, FCC of NC administration manager Wayne Cromartie, Laurinburg postal carrier Brian Gainey, retired South Scotland Elementary School principal Pat Gates, former New York teaching assistant Karen Ackwood James, Methodist pastor Rob Macy, Golden Corral hospitality manager Dorothy Moore, retired Sycamore Lane Middle School principal Rick Singletary, and Gregory D. Taylor.
All but Moore participated in the candidate forum at Scotland High School, which was organized by the Laurinburg-Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce and the Laurinburg Junior Service League.
While responding to a question from media representative Mary Evans regarding the candidates’ proposals for controlling the decline in the school system’s enrollment, Macy was the first to broach the subject of the school board’s consideration of building new school facilities and closing current ones.
“I believe in my heart we have lost so many students to the point of hundreds of thousands of dollars we had to return to the state because we failed to meet projected enrollment numbers, and we lost those students because of broken trust across this community,” said Macy, citing public meetings held at Washington Park and Pate-Gardner Elementary Schools before their closure last year.
“A lot of people spoke up, and I didn’t hear one person say please close my school.”
Gainey and James also voiced their censure of the plans, citing concerns about overcrowding schools before they can be expanded, and said they would explore other options before endorsing further redistricting.
“We need better options — we need to wait and slow down a little bit,” Gainey said. “If you’re going to consolidate children, why don’t we build the school first and then send them there instead of playing checkers with them to send them here and then send them there.”
Singletary and Taylor, on the other hand, view the consolidation process as a necessary and realistic reaction to declining enrollment and cuts in local and state funding.
“Those schools are closed, and they’re not going to take those students from Carver and Spring Hill and put them at Sycamore Lane and move everything back; accept that fact,” said Singletary. “My plea to everyone now is, again ask the question: what is still in the best interest of the children and the students and the staff and the people of Scotland County?”
Candidates also fielded audience questions about their prior community involvement and how they would improve the school system for all. Taylor said he would be a vocal advocate for the school system’s strengths.
“I know our school system has problems like every other school system has problems, but I work as a pastor and when you encourage people to see that the glass is half-full rather than half empty, you make progress,” he said.
Cromartie said that, if elected to continue serving, he will strive to remain a builder of consensus among board members.
“The school board is a board, it’s a unified board and that’s the only way you will get anything accomplished,” he said. “To have a board that’s not unified, you’re actually creating a disservice to those very children you serve.”
Candidates were also asked to elaborate on their plans to prepare students for employment in a global economy.
“Unfortunately, there are students who enter the job market unprepared,” said Cromartie. “They lack the soft skills that are required in today’s workforce. In order for our students to be globally competitive, we must better prepare them for what is really out there.”
James suggested partnerships with local industries to provide internships and job shadowing opportunities, an avenue Gates said the system is already exploring.
“We are also working with industry now so that the students we graduate from Scotland High School can have an opportunity to go into industry in Scotland County, in hopes of promoting more industry for Scotland County,” Gates said. “Not only do we realize that we need to grow children who are college and career ready, we need to grow children who will be ready to come back to Scotland County and work and to help us promote industry here.”
Taylor stressed programs in science, technology, engineering and math, and Byrd offered the STEM magnet program implemented at Carver Middle School this year and Covington Street Elementary’s pioneering one-to-one computer system as evidence that the board has kept up with the times.
The school board race is nonpartisan, and the top six vote-getters in the March primary will move forward to the November general election.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.