City schools will fight merger

In comments at the end of an otherwise routine meeting, city school officials vowed to “fight for our schools” and work for a long-term change in the makeup of the county commission.

Superintendent Kenny Garland read a letter from state representative Brenden Jones and state senator Danny Britt responding to the county commissioners’ request for state-level leadership in the effort to merge the Columbus County and Whiteville City school systems.

Jones and Britt said they were “humbled” at being asked to assist in such a difficult and controversial decision. They pointed out that “statutory authority rests with the county commissioners,” and they wondered whether “the law is not known, not understood or is being ignored” by the commissioners.

Britt and Jones asked for a detailed record of educational “expenditures for at least the last four years.” They said they could then decide “what other areas we should assume responsibility over from the county…If we are going to do this we want to be thorough.”

For the rest of the letter from Britt and Jones, read Thursday’s paper.

Board member Greg Merritt said that the problem is lack of representation for city residents on the seven-member commission.

“I’m asking, first, to my fellow board members, are you interested in us getting more representation for this school district” at the county level.

Merritt pointed out that, “We have 21,000 people, roughly, in this school district” helping to elect the seven county commissioners. Yet “we only have one (commissioner) that answers to us…The percentages don’t work out very well…..It should be, at least, close to three (city residents on the board) for the percentage of people that’s in this school district.”

“It’s time in this county that we all have a voice on our elected officials,” Merritt said, “I’ve read some of the things our representative and our senator said about the so-called meeting last night, and they were appalled..If we all could vote for all of (the commissioners), I just feel in my heart that we would have better men and women representing us and we could move forward.”

“We’ll continue to fight for our children and our citizens,” Merritt said. “I’m sure I’m speaking for all our board members. We will not give up the fight to save this school district. It’s worth fighting for.”

Board Chairman Barbour said yes to Merritt’s question about wanting more representation.

Rev. David Flowers agreed that “We possibly need to be where we can actually have a voice.”

Flowers thought that the district lines had been imposed at the state level; Merritt said that he believed there was a special court order just for Columbus County. Callihan said he would research that and that possibly Jim Hill, former county attorney, would have the answer.

Carlton Prince added, “I agree completely that county voters at large should vote for all commissioners.” However, he cautioned that, “I think it’s going to take more than that.” Prince said that a representative ought to live in the area he or she represents. “I agree (with Merritt) but I think it is more complicated than that.”

Merritt asked school system lawyer Will Callihan whether it would be legal for the city school board to challenge the court order, or whether the challenge would need to come from a group of private individuals.

Callihan could not answer immediately but said he would be “more than happy to report back to the board” on the question.

More details will be posted as this story develops.