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County, school leaders work to improve board relationships

The Southampton County Board of Supervisors discussed at its July 27 meeting a separate meeting that occurred July 14 between county and Southampton County Public Schools (SCPS) leaders. 

Michael Johnson

In a report found within the board meeting packet, Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson stated that the purpose of the July 14 meeting was to discuss ways to improve relations between the Board of Supervisors and the Southampton County School Board.

The Board of Supervisors acted July 27 on some of the agreements that came out of the July 14 gathering, preparing some questions that it wanted the school system to answer.

Johnson, in his report, stated that Jerusalem District Supervisor and Board Chair Dr. Alan W. Edwards, Capron District Supervisor and Board Vice Chair William Hart Gillette and himself met at the school board offices July 14 with School Board Chair Dr. Deborah Goodwyn, School Board Vice Chair James Pope III and SCPS Superintendent Dr. Gwendolyn P. Shannon.

“Overall, the meeting was cordial and productive,” Johnson stated. “We discussed various roles and responsibilities of the respective boards, as well as those of the superintendent and county administrator.”

He noted that much of the meeting focused on ways of improving communications between the boards. 

Alan W. Edwards

Later in the July 27 meeting, Edwards recalled the history that has led to some issues between the boards. He said the Board of Supervisors started hearing reports of school roofs leaking last year, and it sent a letter to the school system asking it to send a representative to the November 2020 Board of Supervisors meeting to provide an update.

Gillette said the county received a response, and it was that a representative was not coming to the meeting.

Edwards said some supervisors have asked to go inspect the school roofs, and they were denied that process.

Berlin/Ivor District Supervisor Christopher D. Cornwell Sr. has also commented on a lack of transparency from the school system with regard to how it spends its money.

Continuing his report of the July 14 meeting, Johnson wrote, “The school board asked that any requests for information by the Board of Supervisors regarding the schools be routed through the county administrator to the superintendent.”

He noted that the county and school leaders agreed to follow up with additional meetings between the respective chairs and vice chairs on a quarterly basis, with the next meeting to be coordinated by the superintendent and county administrator for some time in October.

“Following the meeting, Dr. Edwards and Mr. Gillette discussed requests for information that they have received from their constituents and asked me to draft a letter to the superintendent requesting the information,” Johnson stated.

William Hart Gillette

Gillette said he thought the July 14 meeting featured a good discussion, and the formal process of communication between the boards, which he said was brought up by Goodwyn, was agreed upon on all fronts.

“We agreed to their request, and we’re going to follow that,” he said. “And so things that arrive to this board, we agreed that anyone receiving correspondence would route it to Mr. Johnson to come back before this board, and the board would have a chance to read and discuss the information, and then it would be forwarded on to Dr. Shannon for answers back to this board.” 

Edwards said, “What I think I took away from the meeting was that we told them that we were very interested in how taxpayers’ money was used and that we would continue to be interested and follow that. That’s almost 60% of our local budget, so it’s taxpayers’ monies, and I think the board — if anybody disagrees, let me know — we’re stewards of that, and it’s our obligation to oversee that somewhat also.”

He said the Board of Supervisors is going to stand on transparency.

“And I told them at the meeting if they have any questions about the board, the county, whatever, all they had to do was pick up the phone — they don’t have to go through anybody — and call us, and we would be glad to give them the answers, all the information they wanted,” he said.

Edwards read out the five things he and Gillette wanted to ask the school board, noting other supervisors may want to add to the list.

He requested a listing of students with perfect attendance during the 2020-21 year; a listing of faculty or staff that required stipends for coaching or serving as an organized sponsor during the year 2020-21 and the amounts of each stipend that they received; a copy of the current employment contract for the division superintendent; a copy of the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance guidelines and procedures associated with all new school roofs financed through school bonds (taxpayers’ money); and the meeting minutes from the last three meetings of the Southampton County School Board Selection Committee.

Lynda T. Updike

Newsoms District Supervisor Lynda T. Updike said she had several questions her constituents have asked, and she shared them.

“How are they handling the Critical Race Theory curriculum?” she said. “Do we have any transgender high school students? And where does the out-of-district tuition go, and how many such students do we have, and how much is the tuition per student?”

Wanting to add another question, Edwards said, “This spring, the coaches’ stipends were cut 40%, and I think we need to know if that money was kept in the athletic budget or what happened to that. Coaches’ stipends were cut four or five years ago, and if they keep being cut, you’re not going to find qualified people who want to coach, because they’re making about $1.50 an hour anyways.”

Franklin District Supervisor Robert White said he just wanted to make sure the school system was taken care of in reference to the roofs. He said he thought the Board of Supervisors could help the school division make decisions on this and help it deal with contractors.

Gillette asked if Edwards’ fourth request, pertaining to the roofs, could be altered, highlighting the goal of guaranteeing the intended end of the life of the roof as stated in the contract, which is 20 years.

“That’s the maintenance plan we’d like to see,” Gillette said. “We certainly don’t want to have to finance a roof short of that 20-year period. It would be helpful to know the maintenance that’s going to be required to guarantee the life of that roof reaches its intended end as is stated in the contract.”

Carl J. Faison

Boykins District Supervisor Carl J. Faison expressed a concern about how all of the questions might be perceived by the school board.

“The school board has functioned for quite a while,” he said. “We have very good schools. Our schools are all accredited and all of this, and I’m hoping the school board will not see this as us trying to micromanage the school board. We’re two separate organizations, OK, and one does not have authority over the other, and I want us to maintain a good relationship. I think we function far better when these two boards have good relationships, and I don’t want the school board to feel like we’re trying to micromanage.”

“Mr. Faison, this is the process that they recommended,” Gillette said. “This was their process.”

“OK,” Faison said. “I’m just stating a concern.”

“I agree with the process,” Gillette said.

Edwards later said, “We’re not trying to micromanage anybody, but I think everything we’re asking them is to be public knowledge, and that’s the reason we came up with this. And like William Hart said, we’re going with the protocol that they want.”