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State representatives to Board of Ed: NERSBA withdrawal not permitted

The recent action by the Beaufort County Board of Education on Feb. 20 to withdraw from the Northeast Regional School of Biotechnology and Agriculture may not have been permissible under state law, according to a letter addressed to BOE chair Mac Hodges and signed by three state representatives.

The letter, dated March 14, was obtained following the publication of an article examining the withdrawal on Wednesday. According to the letter, which was sent by N.C. Senator Harry Brown, N.C. Senator Bill Cook and N.C. House of Representatives Majority Leader Beverly Boswell, state statute grants authorization for the formation of regional schools such as NERSBA, but “does not provide a mechanism for participating units to withdraw.”

“Local Boards of Education are prohibited from taking such action,” the letter reads. “Indeed, the regional school, once created by the participating units and approved by the state Board of Education, becomes its own entity, and is governed by a separate board.”

The letter goes on to say that a decision to withdraw would require changes to residency requirements listed in the state statute to ensure that students currently attending NERSBA would be grandfathered.

“For these reasons, we strongly urge the Beaufort County Board of Education to rescind its motion to withdraw from NERSBA until the General Assembly legally authorizes such an action,” the letter concluded.

Each member of the Beaufort County Board of Education, BCS Superintendent Dr. Don Phipps, the NERSBA Board of Directors and superintendents and boards of education from Washington, Pitt, Tyrrell and Martin counties also received the letter.

Phipps said that it is debatable whether the lack of a withdrawal mechanism specifically prohibits withdrawal. He said during the course of discussions leading up to withdraw, the board had been advised that both entering into and exiting from an agreement such as the one made with NERSBA must be done through resolution.

“Looking at the way the legislation was written, everything was directed at creating the school,” Phipps said. “There were supposed to be a few things like (mechanisms for withdrawal) being created by the NERSBA Board once it was put together, and those things just never materialized. There’s not a mechanism there.”

Phipps said he had spoken with members of the legislature about a solution that might be viable and that such a solution would involve both the Early College High School and Beaufort County Community College.

“NERSBA is valuable, and I think they do a good job,” Phipps said. “Our argument is we want to be able to keep resources local and do that locally. The question will have to be answered from an outside source on what is the proper mechanism of being able to get out. I hope it is what we have done, but that remains to be seen. When you read it, the legislation is silent.”

Phipps said when legislation was put together, it was done so quickly, with the intention of getting the schools up and running. In the process, Phipps said some items may have gone unaddressed.

“What needed to happen afterwards, in terms of putting together structure, organization and protocol — that hasn’t happened yet,” Phipps said. “This is a good example of why that needs to be in place.”

Responding to a request for comment from the WDN, Senator Bill Cook issued the following statement:

“The Northeast Regional School of Biotechnology and Agriscience (NERSBA) is a shining star for a region of North Carolina with significant needs. This school has created a new prototype for rural education with a focus on preparing students for careers that are vital to the economic prosperity of Northeastern North Carolina. Job creators across the Northeast are in need of students with high quality STEM skills. And additional industries will not come to our region without a skilled, talented workforce available to them. NERSBA is providing and preparing the highly trained workforce we need to expand operations in the northeast region and hire additional talent. Thus, Sen. Harry Brown, Rep. Beverly Boswell, and myself are looking out for the students of Beaufort County. We want the students to have access to this school, which is reshaping how we link education and economic development and is a rural, regional model for the nation. I am confident that we will be able to reach an agreement with the Beaufort County Board of Education.”

Requests for further comment made on Thursday to the offices of Brown and Boswell were not answered as of press time on Friday. Hodges, who also serves on the NERSBA Board of Directors, recused himself from discussion and action of the withdrawal during the Feb. 20 meeting.