Beaufort News

Board chairman won't allow vote to take school closings off budget-cutting table

A parliamentary rule led Beaufort County Board of Education chairman Fred Washington Jr. to deny a vote on taking school closings off the budget-cutting table even as Shell Point Elementary School supporters packed Tuesday's meeting expecting a decision.

The motion would have passed had the vote been allowed.

"We are outraged beyond belief," said Lisa Kindwall, chairwoman of the Shell Point School Improvement Council. "We feel betrayed."

A motion to halt discussions of school closings failed on a tie vote Jan. 8 when board member Earl Campbell was absent.

That led board member Ronald Speaks to request on Jan. 18 that the issue be taken up again, with the full board present.

Campbell said Tuesday he would not vote to close any school and is in favor of stopping discussions of the matter.

The item was added to the board's meeting agenda, but Washington announced Tuesday that taking up the issue a second time would violate Robert's Rules of Order. Only members on the prevailing side can make a motion to reconsider, he said. Speaks was not on the prevailing side.

Washington supports keeping the option of school closings available as the board develops an operating budget over the next few months.

The closing are among several proposals the board is considering to combat an anticipated $4 million shortfall in this year's budget and nearly $7 million next year. Shuttering Shell Point Elementary was among the options proposed in November.

Several board members challenged Washington's decision.

Speaks asked him to seek an opinion from the district's attorney on the issue.

Campbell called the decision "wrong."

"It's not fair to these parents who are here tonight expecting us to discuss this," Campbell said, to applause from the dozens of Shell Point parents, students and other supporters who attended.

Many carried signs and wore stickers proclaiming "Save Our School" as children passed out hand-drawn fliers with the same message.

"We are prolonging the inevitable," board member Steven Morello said. "We're stressing all these people out. ... It's making us look like we can't make a decision."

Morello introduced new language he hopes will allow the board to take up the issue at its Feb. 15 meeting. His motion requires the board to continue funding all existing county schools in their current buildings.

Washington said he will seek legal advice on both his decision to deny the vote and the motion proposed by Morello.

He apologized for failing to inform the public before the meeting that he would not allow a vote. He said he informed board members over the weekend.

"I accept full responsibility for not giving the public notice earlier," he said. "... If anyone wants to get angry, I should be the target."

Washington also said his decision doesn't mean Shell Point -- or any other school -- will close next fall. It simply keeps all options on the table, he said.

Washington said the board plans to meet Feb. 18 for an all-day work session to consider cuts to balance the 2011-12 operating budget.

In addition to school closings, options include a list of more than 20 potential cuts including positions for pre-kindergarten teachers, school resource officers, instructional coaches and administrative coordinators. Increasing class sizes is an option, as well as cutting support for extracurricular activities.