The topic of public education dominated much of Friday’s town hall meeting hosted bimonthly by Tare “T” Davis, chairman of the Warren County Board of Commissioners, in the Lake Gaston district where he lives.
His guests for the meeting held at Buck Spring Park in Littleton, N.C., were Ebony Talley-Brame and Linda Byrd, chairwoman and vice chairwoman, respectively, of the Warren County Board of Education.
The two school system leaders, who were among three board of education members elected to replace three longtime school board members in May 2018, spoke bluntly about changes that have been made since their election, including pushback they have received from within the school system.
Talley-Brame said she and Byrd, who also lives in the lake area, were going to start modeling what Davis was doing by holding town hall meetings in their districts.
The chairwoman said it is important to provide a quality education for students, and part of doing that meant getting into the schools to see what is going on and holding the superintendent accountable. Talley-Brame said that Dr. Mary Young, who was hired as Warren County Schools’ superintendent in July 2019 on a two-year contract, was a “great asset” to the district and a “transformative leader.”
Young replaced Dr. Ray Spain, who retired last June after serving as school superintendent for about 16 years.
“It’s time for some changes. We’re charging her, as the superintendent, to shake up some things,” Talley-Brame said of Young.
Talley-Brame talked about the school district’s loss of $1 million to charter schools, strategies for bringing students back to Warren County Schools, and issues with teacher retention, which she blamed not on pay, but on the climate and culture within the school system.
“We need to make sure people feel valued,” she said. “We’re not doing a really good job with our climate and culture. Teachers are leaving us for reasons that we have control over.”
Talley-Brame said that students should know not only who their teachers and principals are, but also who the superintendent is through Young’s presence in the schools.
She also addressed chronic poor maintenance of school buildings and grounds in the past, which she said new board members had pointed out to previous school system administration. Talley-Brame said she and others had been called micromanagers for noticing that grass needed to be cut and trash on school grounds, making schools uninviting.
“First impression is your lasting impression,” she said. “We’re new, and they don’t like change. Anything I expect my staff to do, I inspect. I trust, but I verify. I’ll be honest with you, we’ve got some work to do.”
Talley-Brame said that monthly school walk-throughs would be happening, and that previous inspections had upset some people.
“They want us to make announcements,” Byrd said.
“Isn’t that crazy,” Talley-Brame said, smiling.
“There’s no fixing what’s already there. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need new schools,” Byrd said. “They’re really in bad shape.”
Fielding questions from multiple citizens about school maintenance, Talley-Brame said that Dr. Frank Polakiewicz, who oversaw maintenance among his duties, was no longer with the school system.
Polakiewicz, formerly an assistant superintendent whose job title was changed to chief operating officer, retired at the end of December and was replaced by COO Andre Stewart.
“We’re changing our order chart, which means we’re trying to figure out how we can save money,” she said. “We’ve just not been good stewards over what we’ve had, and I take ownership of that, too, and we’re working on it.”
Talley-Brame admitted that the school system had “too much money at the top,” given the size of the district.
Byrd indicated that other retirements may follow now that people are being held accountable, but change wouldn’t happen overnight.
“A lot we don’t find out until after the fact, and a lot they try to keep from us, and that’s why we’re going into the schools more often,” she said.
In response to a question about new school construction from Lake Gaston resident Ron Skow, Talley-Brame said school and county leaders had been meeting to discuss that issue. She noted the closing last year of South Warren Elementary School, the youngest of the aging schools.
Davis said that discussion of what to do about public school buildings including looking 50 to 60 years out, and that new construction was in the picture.
Both school board members stressed the importance of being transparent with community members and the need for citizen involvement in helping improve Warren County Schools.
“We are aware that we do have some issues,” Talley-Brame said. “What I’m asking of you is, how can you help us. I want you guys to have a voice.”
The remainder of the meeting focused on lake and countywide issues including problems with convenience center sites at Longbridge and Drewry, near Kerr Lake; a discussion on broadband, including satellite capabilities and Carolyn Ross-Holmes calling for a master plan for county growth; the Frontier Warren entrepreneur center proposed in Warrenton; Warren County being in talks with Franklin and Halifax counties regarding a regional 911 center; and announcements.
The county commissioners will hold a retreat at Buck Spring Park on Wednesday, Feb. 19, starting at 8:30 a.m., followed by a work session that evening. Davis said that discussions on the coming budget year would include some hard decisions on funding for schools, broadband and employee pay based on an employee compensation study currently being conducted.