Bear Grass, Jamesville schools to remain open

Published 8:47 pm Saturday, May 3, 2008

By Staff
Judge denies school board’s motion to dismiss
Staff Writer
GREENVILLE — Residents of Bear Grass and Jamesville could be seen dancing and giving high fives in a Pitt County courtroom Friday, moments after a judge decided their towns’ schools would remain open for at least another year.
After three hours of arguments, Superior Court Judge Clifton W. Everett denied a motion by the Martin County Board of Education to dismiss a complaint that the board’s decision to close the schools was unlawful. Everett then granted a preliminary injunction on the board’s decision, which would close Bear Grass and Jamesville high schools effective next school year.
Everett said he respected the school board’s action, if they followed North Carolina general statutes in making the decision. Because it had not been made clear that the school board followed statute in voting to close the schools, he ruled in favor of the plaintiffs until the case could be brought to trial.
Bear Grass Mayor Charlotte Griffin sat through the hearing in a courtroom packed with residents of the two towns. Following the judge’s decision, she said he had “understood” that the school board had not thoroughly examined the effect consolidation would have on students.
The 4-2 vote to consolidate Martin County’s four high schools to just two was taken in Feb. 4. Bear Grass and Jamesville residents filed suit against the school board two days later. The suit was then withdrawn and refiled two weeks later in Raleigh, listing the State Board of Education as a codefendant. The residents, who call themselves Concerned Citizens of Bear Grass and Jamesville, were represented by Greensboro Attorney Robert Hunter.
The consolidation move would have sent students attending Bear Grass and Jamesville high schools to Roanoke and Williamston High schools in the fall.
Kenneth Soo, a Raleigh attorney representing the school board, opened arguments regarding his motion to dismiss the residents complaint. He echoed Superintendent Tom Daly’s stance on consolidation — that the move was a way to counter costs associated with aging and unsafe facilities and declining enrollment countywide.
The county currently has a high-school enrollment of about 1200 students while Williamston and Roanoke high schools have a combined excess capacity of 1450 students, Soo said during his opening arguments.
Hunter’s clients also claimed that the school board was denying students at the two smaller high schools their constitutional rights to a “sound basic education” by sending them to school which perform at lower levels than Bear Grass and Jamesville. Soo, listing No Child Left Behind statistics and standardized testing scores, said “there isn’t sufficient evidence that these schools (Roanoke and Williamston) are struggling.”
On the same grounds, Hunter brought suit against the State Board of Education, represented Friday by Raleigh attorney Tom Ziko. He claims the state board is failing to protect students in Bear Grass and Jamesville from “irreparable harm.”
But justification for the school board’s vote, and contention by Bear Grass and Jamesville residents that the move deprived them of constitutional rights to a “sound basic education,” took a back seat to the procedural issue of how the vote came to be taken.
The debate became focused on the manner in which the board conducted the consolidation process. The residents of Bear Grass and Jamesville, contend that the board did not only shirk the law in making the decision, but that they did not provide adequate notice of or documentation to back up its decision. Soo contended that general statutes governing school consolidation had been followed.
Hunter, in his rebuttal, focused on the studies the school board used to justify its decision to consolidate. The study, he argued, was a compilation of a hodgepodge of facilities studies compiles since the mid-1990s which was “pulled off the shelf” to comply with general statute. The statute states that the school board “shall cause a detailed study to be made” in which the welfare of students in the school to be closed is taken into consideration.
Soo said he could be ready to go to trial in two weeks. Everett said the case should be tried as soon as possible because of planning decisions that need to be made during summer in order to open school in fall.