Public, supervisors speak on school system

Published 7:54 am Friday, November 5, 2021

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The Oct. 26 meeting of the Southampton County Board of Supervisors featured strong statements from the public and supervisors, with several people sharing pronounced grievances with Southampton County Public Schools and others emphasizing the need for the school board and Board of Supervisors to unify and work together.

During the citizens’ comment period, there were 14 public speakers, and seven of them had critical things to say about the school system.

A common element of the criticism was a lack of communication from SCPS administrators and Southampton County School Board members.

Colleen Kirste, of Branchville, spoke twice during the citizens’ comment period, sharing details of an incident that took place earlier this school year with her son.

She said that one day after school as children were being taken home, her son was put in a car rather than a bus so that someone could take him home.

“The day that this happened, my son texted me and told me that he was in a car on the way home,” she told the Board of Supervisors. “I texted him back and said, ‘Whose car? Why are you in a car?’ ‘They put me in the car.’ ‘Why did they put you in the car?’ ‘I don’t know. The bus people put me in the car.’”

Kirste said no one from SCPS had contacted her about such a significant change in transportation.

“Nobody told my son who he was in the car with, why he was in the car,” she said. “They put him in the car. The driver could have turned around and said, ‘Hey, my name is so and so. Can I get your mom’s phone number so I can contact her so that I can get permission before I leave school grounds?’ Nothing.”

She said she went into a panic, noting the situation sounded to her like a kidnapping.

“I’m watching my son’s GPS go down a dead-end road, my stomach dropped, because all I’m thinking is, ‘Who’s he with? What’s getting ready to happen to my son?’” she said.

Her son arrived home safely, and when the car pulled up, the driver supplied his name and said that he had her son for drop-off.

Kirste said she called the school saying it was an emergency and eventually spoke with an administrator who agreed with her that the lack of notification on the transportation change was unacceptable. She learned that the person whose job it was to notify her of the change had COVID-19 and had forgotten to contact her.

She spoke with this person the next day when he called to let her know the same mode of transportation would be used that day as well, but Kirste made it clear she would be picking up her son from school personally.

Kirste said she contacted the office of SCPS Superintendent Dr. Gwendolyn P. Shannon the night of the incident, but Shannon could not speak with her that night because of a meeting, so Kirste suggested a phone call the next day, but they did not end up speaking.

Kirste said she spoke with a supervisor of transportation, and since then, she has sent several emails.

“I’ve sent emails separately to the principal, I’ve sent emails to all the school board members, the superintendent and the principal together, more than once,” she said. “I have all the dates of every email I’ve sent, and I have not heard a single contact back until after I made a post on social media.”

She said that she made the post on social media after multiple weeks of silence from the school system. Within hours of the social media post, she received an email from the superintendent.

“The fact that nobody got back with me at all until four weeks later just shows that they don’t care,” Kirste said. “They’re hoping I’m going to forget about it and move on, and I’m not, because my child was traumatized. He was in tears after he got dropped off.”

She said someone from the school division finally contacted her the week prior to the Oct. 26 Board of Supervisors meeting.

“A policy needs to be put in place to make sure this situation never happens again to another child,” she said. “Southampton County Public Schools needs to reevaluate their communication and actually have open and honest two-way communication with parents and students. This could have been prevented, and this should have never happened.”

Multiple speakers expressed their sympathy and strong support for Kirste and her objective of making sure an incident like this never happens again.

Some speakers questioned the venue for the complaint, noting that it should go to the school board, with one speaker emphasizing that the school board is autonomous and is not ruled over by the Board of Supervisors but rather by the state.

Someone speaking on behalf of Kirste said they may, indeed, be in the wrong venue and would take their complaint to the state level but also highlighted that they came to the Board of Supervisors because they had not been heard by the school system.

One speaker said that until the county can get an elected school board that answers to the parents, there will not be any unity.

Anthony Rawlings Sr., lead pastor and founder of Celebration Church Franklin, spoke passionately during the citizens’ comment period about the need for unity between the Board of Supervisors and the school board. He said he has now sent six children into SCPS and graduated from the school system himself. 

“For the last two years, a portion of that they were in virtual learning,” he continued. “How did that look? So then all of us jumped up and down to get everybody back in school, and so everybody’s back in school, and here we are still jumping up and down, because nobody has all the answers, but everybody can point fingers. At some point, when are we going to start working together?

“We can’t keep bashing people, publicly bashing people,” he continued. “No. What is that going to get us? What we’ve got tonight? We’re hearing everybody have grievances, but how are we handling these grievances? Let’s get together, let’s unify. How can two walk together unless they agree?”

Alan W. Edwards

Jerusalem District Supervisor and Board Chair Dr. Alan W. Edwards issued a direct reply to Rawlings.

“I’m not going sit here and let this board be accused of bashing,” Edwards said. “We’re not bashing anything. We have extended the olive branch. 

“I’ll tell you what, we got a meeting with the superintendent, the chairman of the (school) board and the vice chairman of the board in July,” Edwards continued. “We had a very cordial meeting, and we decided to meet every three months. We contacted them on September the 28th, gave them dates, (said,) ‘Let’s meet again.’ We’ve heard nothing. (County Administrator) Mr. (Michael) Johnson contacted them again on October the 19th; we’ve heard nothing. Now, how are we supposed to help them?”

He said school leaders are not communicating with county leaders or anybody else.

To Rawlings, Edwards said, “So my advice to you — I understand where you’re coming from — is to turn around and go to these people and tell them, ‘Look, you’ve got to start communicating.’”

Carl J. Faison

Boykins District Supervisor Carl J. Faison offered his thoughts on the situation.

“I hear what Dr. Edwards has said, and I hear what Pastor Rawlings has said, and I think both of them have valid points,” Faison said. “We have to come together, but we do have to understand what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with a school board that is not under the jurisdiction of the Board of Supervisors. We know that fact, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together. We do need to work together. But we need to understand each other and be respectful to each other.

“And Dr. Edwards, I’m sure, is right about reaching out the hand to them, but a lot of times when we reach out a hand, it’s not perceived to be a hand that we would want to shake,” Faison added. “And so I think that we need to look at that and look at ourselves, examine ourselves, and they need to examine themselves.”

Faison emphasized that the county has a good school system that has been good for a long time.

“I think that we do have problems, but they’re not insurmountable problems if we can work together to solve them and look at ourselves as well as others,” he said.

Rawlings made it clear the goal is to get the two boards working together within the means that are afforded.

“That’s all I’m saying tonight is that now if there’s someone who can help marry this so that we don’t go through a sloppy, ugly divorce, OK, that’s cool,” he said. “But how do we get to that place so that we can mend what’s been broken? That’s all I’m saying. And we need to do that because at the end of the day, for me, the children are going to be the end product, and we’ve got to help them be able to compete in a global market.”

“That’s exactly what we’re asking,” Edwards said.