Creating a successful public school system is tough in the best of circumstances. When you add dysfunctional governance and limited resources, it gets really difficult.
That’s the story in Robeson County, where financial and enrollment pressures are sparking extraordinary tensions. The county system, with about 21,600 students, is running a $2 million annual deficit this year. It expects to have 2,000 fewer students this fall than it did four years ago, while test scores trail state averages. Two hurricanes wreaked economic havoc in Robeson in recent years, prompting many families to depart. Insurance proceeds from a destroyed school building are being used to meet payroll.
Superintendent Shanita Wooten and the system’s board recently asked for help from the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction. But she and her board don’t agree on much else. The Robeson board last week rejected Wooten’s plans to terminate 27 administrative and principal contracts to cut costs and canceled meetings to discuss her strategic plan. The state board is pressing the school system for financial audits, which are months overdue.
“The system’s dysfunctional leadership is on display perhaps like never before,” Lumberton’s Robesonian newspaper noted Saturday.
County Manager Kellie Blue, who is on the UNC System Board of Governors, opposes spending more on the system without a reliable plan, the newspaper reported. For years, local officials have discussed replacing about 30 aging buildings with a dozen new ones. No decisions have been reached.
Channing Jones, the county’s economic development director, says it’s wrong to paint an overly negative picture. The county is home to rapidly growing UNC Pembroke and Robeson Community College and has attracted more than $300 million in private investment over the last year, Jones says.
No one wants anything but the best for Robeson, where 29% of the population is in poverty, double the state average, federal data shows. School officials can resolve their differences based on widespread community input, Jones says.
“We need a new mindset in our educational system,” says Wooten, 40, a county native and former biology teacher who was appointed to her job last year. Her goal is to reduce spending on administration, invest more in the classroom and replace aging schools. administrative.
Lack of support for her proposals frustrates her. She told the Robesonian: “You can serve on the board 30 years (Chairman Mike Smith), work in finance for 20 years (Finance Director Erica Setzer), be the board attorney for over 20 years (Grady Hunt), yet Shanita Wooten ran the system in the ground.” (Hunt is a member of the N.C. Department of Transportation.)
In recent years, state lawmakers assigned control of Robeson’s worst-performing school to a newly created “Innovative School District” run by a charter-school company, reflecting distrust in county schools. It’s too early to know how that has worked at Southside-Ashland Elementary in Rowland.
State leaders talk about solving rural problems; for the kids’ sake, here’s one that needs attention.