During the commissioner concerns portion of the meeting, Commissioner Harold Smith said he wanted to talk about some issues involving the school board. "I have some concerns about some of the practices on the school board," he said. "I feel that our county money is not being well spent. Our black kids are... being sold out."
He pointed to the fact that school board member Leon Gatewood, who is African-American, had resigned his seat several months ago, and was replaced by Rev. Rob Rollins, a Caucasian, who had previously served on the board but was defeated in November's election.
"Nobody in my district knows anything about Mr. Rollins," Smith said.
He went on to point out that there are currently no African-American teachers at Lilesville Elementary or Ansonville Elementary, and only one at Peachland-Polkton Elementary. "What can we do?" he asked, adding that he wished to withhold the county's funding of the school system.
When questioned, County Manager Lawrence Gatewood said that funding would amount to about $3.5-3.7 million a year.
"What would happen if we withheld those funds?" Commission Chair Anna Baucom asked.
Gatewood responded that the school system would likely be forced to cut some of its staff and programs. However, County Attorney Scott Forbes said that he did not think the county could legally withhold its funding of the school system, a fact that Anson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Greg Firn echoed in an interview with The Anson Record on Wednesday.
"I can tell you that the county is required by law to fund schools," he said.
"We need to bring in the federal government or something," Smith said Tuesday night. "I don't want our black children here to feel like we can't have black people employed."
"As county commissioners, you have a lot of leeway but you have limited control over another board," Forbes told him.
"We are responsible over every tax dollar in this county," Smith argued.
"I certainly share Commissioner Smith and Commissioner Streater's concerns," Gatewood said. "Certainly, it is a matter of concern that there's not more diversity in our schools."
Although Gatewood said he would look into it, Smith wanted to take action more quickly.
"Tomorrow, I'm going to call the Civil Rights Coalition and see what I can do," Smith responded. "I would love to see the state of North Carolina take over control of the school system."
Commissioner Ross Streater also spoke up with a concern about the school board, saying he'd heard from several citizens that members of the school board and school system staff had recently gone on a trip to Arizona. "We need to clear up the rumors," Streater said. "Was it a golfing trip or an educational trip?"
Smith had concerns over the school system's Ombudsman program as well. He asked how many of the county's tax dollars go to the Ombudsman program in Anson County, which replaced the Anson Challenge Academy alternative school. "It's a waste of money," he said.
Commissioner Jarvis Woodburn stated that he thought the Ombudsman program was funded by a grant, at no cost to taxpayers.
Baucom pointed out that two students in the program had addressed the commissioners during a joint meeting with the school board in March, and said that those students had been "impressive."
"Of course, in a situation like that, you're going to highlight the best and brightest," she admitted.
Baucom said she's also heard some in the community voice concerns that the Ombudsman program is located in a shopping center, which could be a distraction to students.
"I think it would be appropriate to have Dr. Firn come and address these questions," Gatewood said.
"I would prefer a conversation, as opposed to accusations," Baucom agreed.
Gatewood reiterated that he would like for Dr. Firn to appear before the board and answer Smith's and Streater's questions, and said he would look into the issues voiced as well.
Dr. Firn spoke about the accusations on Wednesday. "Unfortunately, I'm very aware" of the lack of African-American teachers employed with the school system, he said. He explained the lack of diversity as "literally a case of coincidence."
"We make every effort to attract qualified individuals, whether they're African-American, Hispanic or otherwise," Firn said.
He added that when several African-American teachers either retired or resigned from Lilesville Elementary, they were replaced through a process of attrition, due to budgeting constraints. "When a position becomes available because of retirement, we have moved people around so we don't have to lay anyone off," he explained. "Either a position wasn't filled or it was filled from within."
At the joint meeting in March, Anson County Schools Chief Operating Officer Michael Freeman said that retirements have reduced the ranks of African-Americans in Lilesville.System-wide, he added, 48 percent of the employees are black and 29 percent of the teachers are black.
He said part of the problem was declining enrollment, which meant teachers were transferred out of the school.
Firn pointed out that Anson County faces problems recruiting more diverse teachers because of its lack of incentives. The best and brightest are usually drawn to larger urban areas that can offer more, he said. "I commend our commissioners for what they've done to try to bring teachers here," he added. "And I can understand Mr. Smith's concerns."
However, he went on to say, "I don't need Mr. Smith to threaten our county schools when we are using our best efforts to reflect the population in our staffing."
As for Streater's concerns about the trip to Arizona, Dr. Firn said he was "extremely offended by even the suggestion that individuals in Anson County Schools would be less than good stewards of public money."
The trip in question was taken by nine individuals, including Firn, Anson County Schools Chief Operating Officer Michael Freeman and other administrators, to Scottsdale, Ariz., for the 28th annual Effective Schools Conference.
Anson County Schools was recognized at the event for its Total Instructional Alignment program, Firn said.
A full accounting of the conference can be found on the Anson County Schools' website, www.ansonschools.org, by clicking on the "Superintendent" tab, and then "Superintendent's Monthly Reports." The conference recap begins on page 20 of the March report.
As for the Ombudsman program, Firn said that Woodburn was correct and the program is fully funded by a grant. "We're very fortunate to have this in Anson County," he said. "Anson County is one of only a very few in the nation that made the decision to start an Ombudsman program."
Ombudsman replaced the Anson Challenge Academy, and Firn said, "This has been in detail described to the commissioners and others interested."
The location in the shopping center was by design, he added. "We moved from a location that was less than desirable to a location that we feel is of the highest quality. The reason it's in the location that it is, is because we wanted it to look different, feel different and be different."
Most of its students are thriving, he pointed out, and added that a number of them will be graduating a year early. Ombudsman offers three sessions per day-- morning, afternoon and evening, in order to work best with working students' schedules.
"A year ago, Mr. Smith said that we needed to shut down [Anson Challenge Academy]," Firn said. "We took to heart what he suggested and shut down that alternative school."
Finally, as for the issue with Rollins' appointment to the school board, Firn said that only two individuals appeared before the board in public session to express an interest in the position--Rollins and Carol Ann Gibson.
School board members Lisa Davis, Daniel Wilson, Robbie Little and Beulah Pratt voted for Rollins, while George Truman, Marilyn Bennett and Michael Livingston voted for Gibson. Russell Sikes abstained from the vote, saying he was friends with both candidates and believed either would be a good fit.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Firn said he had not yet been contacted by County Manager Gatewood or any of the commissioners, but that he would be glad to meet with the commissioners. However, he did say he was disappointed that these issues were brought up in a public meeting, with no school board members present to respond to the allegations and concerns.
"I'm really not sure what the agenda is," he said.