ROWLAND — Rowland residents do not want their elementary school to close.
That was the unanimous view expressed during a town hall meeting Tuesday at the Expo Center on Main Street. About 40 people attended the information session concerning the possible state takeover of Southside-Ashpole Elementary School.
Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, the Rowland District school board member with the Public Schools of Robeson County, said the only option to a takeover by the state Board of Education’s Innovative School District is to close the school. She said she would do what’s right for the community and work to keep the school open.
“I believe there are the votes to keep the school open,” Fairley-Ferebee said. “In September, we did not have enough information to make an informed decision.
“At first, the parents at Southside-Ashpole were against it, because we needed more information. I do not believe the community is unanimously for the takeover.”
Fairley-Ferebee invited members of the audience to attend the next county school board meeting, which will be held at Southside-Ashpole on Dec. 12 at 6 p.m.
“I am hopeful they will make a decision at that meeting,” she said. “I am hoping there are enough votes to keep the school open.”
The county school board has until Feb. 1 to decide to close the school or to hand the keys over to the ISD. The takeover would begin during the summer of 2018, although the PSRC would continue to be responsible for maintenance and transportation.
The meeting was hosted by the town of Rowland and Town Clerk David Townsend, who said the objective was to keep people informed. Mayor-elect Michelle Shooter and Mayor Pro-tem Marvin Shooter attended the meeting.
School board members Craig Lowry and Mike Smith, and county Commissioner Berlester Campbell, who represents Rowland, also attended. Innovative School District Superintendent Eric Hall also was present.
Shooter said “Rowland is on a roll,” and the town vigorously supports keeping their school open.
“When schools close, towns become blighted,” Shooter said. “If the school closes, your children will be sent to surrounding schools, which are not doing much better.”
Many in Rowland have done an about-face on the issue of a takeover, including the Rev. Shawn Mitchell.
“When I first heard about it, I was 100 percent against it,” Mitchell said. “Why are they picking on our little school?
“Now, I believe it is a good opportunity for Rowland. This is a new day for our children. Finally, they will be getting on grade level and ready to compete.
“If our teachers are all good teachers, we would not be in this position,” Mitchell said. “Our children will have the best teachers available and have the best opportunity for success. We have to hold the ISD accountable, too.”
Melissa Ocean, a parent, said she was also opposed to the takeover at first, and she believed the children would suffer.
“I’m not bashing the Public Schools of Robeson County, but we need a change and closing the school is not going to do it,” Ocean said. “I want what’s best for Rowland and what’s best for our children.”
Rosa Thompson, a retired teacher who spent 20 years working at Southside-Ashpole, also strongly supported the change. She offered to volunteer at the school next year.
“Our children can do better, if they have the chance,” Thompson said. “Ten years ago, we were a school of choice, and we can do it now.
“I’m tired of our children being left behind, and it’s our time now,” she said to a chorus of “Amen.”
“Do all you can do to keep Southside-Ashpole open,” she said to Fairley-Ferebee.
Hall said the takeover is a grass-roots reform effort.
“Changing the education system at Southside-Ashpole begins here, not in Raleigh,” Hall said. “The key is creating partnerships and a shared vision and using the flexibility the new law gives us.
“I am not here to talk about blame, I’m here to talk about opportunities. I am not a political appointee,” Hall said.
According to Hall, the school would operate a lot like a charter school, except it would not pick its students. He has said the school would have more flexibility in hiring staff, setting school hours and the calendar.
Teachers at the school would not be guaranteed a job there, but could apply to keep theirs. The principal would be hired by a management entity, which could be for-profit or nonprofit.
In October, the board unanimously passed a resolution opposing the takeover, but the Robeson County Board of Commissioners backed away from joining them.
Townsend took a straw poll of the audience, and every person raised their hand in support of keeping the school open.
Other speakers expressed a lack of confidence in the local school board’s support of keeping Southside-Ashpole open. Neither school board members Smith or Lowry would commit their votes.