LUMBERTON — Severeo Kerns, a member of the Public Schools of Robeson County school board, never got an answer from fellow board members on why fourth-grade students from Tanglewood and Rowland-Norment elementary schools suddenly have to be transferred to Carroll Middle School.
“Why at this specific moment are we making this decision?” Kerns repeatedly asked each board member during Tuesday’s board meeting. “This is going to impact a lot of people … . My first concern is that we do what is in the best interest of the children.”
Kerns argued unsuccessfully to stop the board from voting 7 to 3 in favor of transferring the fourth-grade students. A majority of the board voted in favor of the transfer despite the presence of 30 parents at Tuesday’s meeting who pleaded that the proposal be tabled for a year to see if the transfers from the crowded elementary schools are necessary after Southeastern Academy, now a private school, is converted into a public charter school.
Those board members opposing the transfer were Dwayne Smith, whose district includes Tanglewood, Bosco Locklear, and Kerns. Voting in favor were Loistine DeFreece, Randy Lawson, John Campbell, Gary Strickland, Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, Steve Martin and Jo Ann Lowery. Chairman Michael Smith only votes to break ties.
Four parents and one student asked the board to delay the transfer, which was not discussed publicly until the board’s retreat last month. Parents were not included in the decision, they said, and the short time remaining between now and the beginning of the new school year does not allow for them to prepare their children for the move to the new school.
Angela Bono-Severy, president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Tanglewood, said there are several changes coming that could lower the number of students at the crowded elementary schools, making the transfer of fourth-graders to the middle school unnecessary.
“No one knew yesterday (Monday) if it was a final good-bye to favorite teachers and staff,” she said. “The children are not ready because we have not prepared them.”
A tearful Malik Freeman, 9, a rising fourth-grader at Rowland-Norment, told the board members that he did not want to attend the middle school because he feared he would be mistreated by older students.
“I don’t want to go there,” he said. “I’m scared.”
Hayley Howard, Freeman’s mother, said that her son had asked to come to the board meeting to plea to the board.
“When I asked him what he would say, he said he would speak from his heart,” she said.
Howard also told the board members that she would have supported the board’s decision if it had been made months ago so that the transfer would not be so difficult for her son.
“My son shouldn’t have had to learn that he would be going to a new school by reading it on a Sunday in the newspaper,” she said.
The parents left the meeting immediately after the board’s vote, gathering for a while outside the board room to discuss their concerns among themselves and with Dwayne Smith, who spoke with them briefly during a recess in the meeting.
Dr. Motti Inbari, the father of a rising fourth-grader at Tanglewood, said that the board violates its own policies when it comes to student transfers and determining at what schools certain grade levels should be housed. He said that he would not rule out legal action.
Board members who voted in favor of the motion pointed out that late last year parents from Tanglewood had approached them and asked that something be done to relieve the crowding at the school.
“I’ve always been about safety,” Fairley-Ferebee said.
Board member Gary Strickland defended the transfers, saying that the “integrity” of the fourth-grade students would be maintained at the middle school and they would be provided with all of the resources needed to be successful.
But board members opposing the transfers argued that the schools are crowded because the board’s transfer policy is too generous.
“It comes down to transfers,” Dwayne Smith. “We’ve got to stop catering to everyone.”
He charged that once the fourth-graders are removed from Tanglewood they will be replaced by transfer students.
‘That’s what this is all about,” he said, “making room for transfer students.”
According to numbers provided by school administrators, 213 students will be transferred to Carroll Middle, 90 from Rowland-Norment and 123 from Tanglewood.
A school board member said after the meeting about 2,000 transfers were approved last year. During a closed session Tuesday, about 800 were considered, including transfers to both Tanglewood and Rowland-Norment.
School administrators have said there are six or seven available classrooms at Carroll Middle.
The state Department of Public Instruction limits class sizes to about 24 students. Based on that number, Carroll Middle School needs at least eight classes to accommodate the new fourth-graders.
Superintendent Johnny Hunt said that money and resources will follow the students to Carroll Middle School.
“We will provide the resources so that these students can get the best education we can offer,” he said.
Hunt after the meeting did not answer questions from a reporter about why the transfer of the fourth-graders is needed now or what the administration’s stance on the issue is.
“We (administration) do what the board tells us,” Hunt said.
In other business, the board on Tuesday:
— Raised the salary of school board attorney Grady Hunt. According to Erica Setzer, the district’s finance officer, Hunt for about 12 years has been making $110 an hour for non-litigated matters; $125 an hour for litigated issues; and a $500 a month retainer.
Under the new pay scale, he will receive $185 an hour for both litigated and non-litigated business and a $500 a month retainer.
Setzer said the school district pays an average of $100,000 a year for billable legal services.
— Tabled discussion of completion of a lease between the school district and the town of Maxton for the old Townsend Middle School Gym.
— Amended the district’s athletic transfer policy to include middle school students. The policy limits the number of transfers a student can make a year to participate in sports.
— Amended the policy providing marshals for high school graduation to allow for a minimum of 12 to a maximum of 5 percent of the senior class.