It's been clear for months that the Guilford County Board of Education's $80 million, deceptively named airport area high school has been all but dead. Supporters of High Point Central High School on Wednesday, Nov. 28 merely took it off life support.
Having been blocked by Guilford County Schools incompetence, bad planning, corruption and bad management at every turn in its four-year effort to build one of the most expensive, and least necessary, high schools ever built in North Carolina, the school board tried one last gambit: holding two barely advertised public forums nobody would attend so the school board could claim that, despite the lack of support for the high school, there was no support for not building it.
The gambit worked at Page High School on Nov. 5, where only a handful of people showed up to comment on the two remaining issues: whether the school board should build the airport area high school at all, and if not, how it should spend the $69 million left over from the project.
Of the $80 million budgeted for the school, $8 million was for an autism wing that was moved elsewhere, leaving $72 million, and Guilford County Schools managed to spend $3 million on not building the high school, for which it never found land, largely because of looking for it in all the wrong places.
The gambit failed drastically at High Point Central, where a small meeting Nov. 15 brought to light numerous problems with the condition of the historic Collegiate Gothic-style school, built in 1926, which is the High Point equivalent of Greensboro's Grimsley High School, formerly Greensboro High School.
High Point Central alumni are a seriously school-spirited bunch – and not just recent alumni. At High Point Central, several generations of Bisons filled the auditorium to near capacity, joined by a large cohort from Western Guilford High School.
The organized, passionate crowd answered the two questions clearly: don't build the airport area high school, and use the money to repair and expand existing schools, including High Point Central, that have severe space and maintenance problems.
The forum was remarkable because of the number of parents, students, retired teachers and principals and even current High Point Central teachers who were willing to stand up and publicly complain about the condition of the high school.
Current Guilford County Schools employees, who fear retribution, rarely speak out about problems at their schools, and even parents and students are often cowed by Guilford County Schools, which has a reputation for retaliating against whistleblowers and squeaky wheels.
Guilford County Schools has been allowed to get too big and too powerful for its own good, and thinks and acts like a private corporation, rather than a taxpayer-funded government agency designed to serve citizens. But the High Pointers at High Point Central, frustrated by what they said is 20 years of getting the short stick in the consolidated school system, used the public forum to rage against the machine.
English teacher Nancy Spurgeon, who has taught at High Point Central since 1973, was a notable example. Spurgeon, whose deceased husband was also a teacher at High Point Central for 17 years ("I married the teacher across the hall."), held up a large plastic bag full of crumbled paint and plaster.
"I've brought a part of my wall," Spurgeon said to a roar of laughter from the crowd. "And that's because, as a teacher, I know how valuable visual aids are."
Spurgeon, who teaches in room 305 at High Point Central, told the school board she made the mistake of trying to mount things on the wall space between the windows in her classroom – only to find that there was no wall.
"There's no plaster under there," she said. "It's got a plastic cover over it to make it look like plaster, but if you knock on it, there's nothing there."
Spurgeon also said – in a complaint heard frequently throughout the night – that High Point Central's bathrooms were a crawling horror. She said she stopped in the girls' bathroom on the way to the forum and found only five of 10 stalls in functioning condition. She said many had no doors, massive holes in the doors, no toilet paper holders and other problems that ensured that no woman would use them.
"They're just not going to do it," she said. "I'm telling you, men, they're just not going to do it."
Spurgeon said High Point Central has only two copy machines, neither of which had been working since Nov. 7.
After the forum, Spurgeon bravely posed for a picture holding up her bag of classroom. Guilford County Schools Western Region Superintendent Angelo Kidd, who is at the top of his profession and makes $146,000 a year, was talking to Spurgeon before the picture was taken, but tried to dive out of the frame before he could be captured on film even appearing to condone criticism of the school board.
Shamed by the photographer before his braver underling, he sheepishly crawled back into the picture and managed a grimace of a false smile.
School board Chairman Alan Duncan and school board members Ed Price, Carlvena Foster, Nancy Routh, Sandra Alexander, Jeff Belton, Darlene Garrett and Deena Hayes attended the forum, along with Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green and a small army of Guilford County Schools administrators. High Point had definitely gotten the school system's attention.
Price and Foster represent High Point. Routh and Alexander are at-large members of the school board and can't win reelection without High Point votes. That's four members of the school board off the top who now know that they can vote for the proposed airport area high school only at their peril. Price has already come out against it, and was the first school board member to publicly question the need for it, although school board member Amos Quick says he has done so privately.
The airport area high school was proposed as part of the $457 million school construction program funded by school bonds Guilford County voters approved in May 2008. Price said he wished that High Point had organized similarly large protests during the negotiations over the $1 billion in school bonds approved since 2000.
"I'm a High Pointer, and I've never seen a turnout like this for any school in High Point," Price said. "This is a tremendous turnout for High Point Central. I wish this had happened in 2000, 2003 and 2008. Some of our needs should have been included in some of those bond things."
Speaker after speaker stood up to detail those needs: crowded classrooms, an unusable cafeteria with a capacity of 150 for a school with 1,424 students, an impossibly tiny library, terrifying bathrooms, a lack of work space for teachers, "floating teachers" who have no assigned classrooms and, above all, the presence of The Academy at Central, which occupies the Tomlinson building on the High Point Central campus, and which High Point Central supporters said should be returned to the school.
High Point Central supporter Brian Hall asked everyone in the auditorium who was a student, employee or alumnus of High Point Central to stand. Almost all of the audience stood.
Hall said that, since 2006, Guilford County Schools has had a total net growth of 356 students, 186 of which were added at High Point Central. He said, "Exactly half of that growth came from High Point Central."
Hall told the school board members, "I'm going to make it real simple."
Real simple meant that High Point Central has 16 teachers with no classrooms who trundle large carts from room to room all day; that the cafeteria was pointless ("Do the math," he said. "There's no way to get those students through the cafeteria."); the library wouldn't hold even a full class of students; and High Point Central needed a massive overhaul to make it fit for human habitation.
"It's time that High Point Central become one of the haves," Hall said. "We are, we feel, one of the have-nots. We are not a proponent of the school at the airport. We would rather see that money spent on existing schools." Huge applause and cheering erupted throughout the auditorium.
Ah, that applause. It was like cool water on parched earth. Duncan doesn't usually allow the audience at school board meetings to clap, cheer or talk. Instead, he makes the citizens paying for the school system do the "school board waggle" – a perverse, spastic vertical hand-wave Duncan claims will save time at school board meetings and forums. It was in dramatic evidence at High Point Central – you've never seen it done right until you've seen it done in a packed high school auditorium – but even Duncan's schoolmarm chiding couldn't keep this crowd quiet.
Here's hoping that the next school board chairman drops that obscene restriction. A school board that tolerates two-hour staff presentations at its meetings has a lot of gall trying to prevent the public from engaging in 30 seconds of applause.
Not even Duncan's habitual civility can take the sting out of telling taxpayers, in essence, to sit down and shut up.
Retired High Point Central teacher and coach Andrea Cozart gave the school board a scalding description of the way Guilford County Schools has allowed the school to deteriorate since its glory days, her speech punctuated by a word that was on the lips of nearly every speaker: "deplorable." She capped off her speech with a rousing call for the school board to return the Tomlinson building, with its 12 classrooms, to High Point Central.
"You can relieve the floating teacher situation tonight if you restore Tomlinson building to High Point Central," she said. "That academy is not a High Point Central entity. It is a Guilford County entity that could be put anyplace."
One thing that enraged the High Point Central supporters more than anything else is that, anticipating the airport area high school project being shot down, the Guilford County Schools Facilities Department came up with a $76 million list of upgrade and maintenance projects for schools – and High Point Central, which has more maintenance and space problems than most, is not on the list.
Cozart said she had seen a separate maintenance priority list for High Point Central, which was nonsensical.
"You have paving the parking lot as the number one priority," she said. "That is absolutely incredible."
Several High Point Central students spoke eloquently about the condition of the school – even though they will have long graduated by the time it is remedied.
High Point Central Student Body President Thomas Jarrell said, with admirable understatement, that students at the school have become used to conditions that are "less than ideal."
Jarrell said there are no doors on the boys' bathroom stalls. He said, "In fact, there are a few missing toilet seats on the toilets." He called the cafeteria "a serious problem that needs to be addressed," and said that classrooms are crowded and textbooks in incredibly short supply. "I've only been given one textbook this year in my eight classes," he said.
Jarrell said, "I urge you to use the funds to upgrade our schools."
A repeated complaint from parents was that the High Point Central cafeteria leaves poor students stuck on campus with no lunch – 60 percent of the school's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches – and creates a dangerous situation daily as students with cars rush off campus to try to get lunch. Some parents said their children call them to come home for lunch, or even to use the bathroom.
One mother of a High Point Central student said her son had been in an accident only three weeks before. She said he was hit by a trash truck while rushing off campus for lunch.
The list of speakers was long, and the list of horror stories longer. Enough said.
The school board members, who saved their comments for the end of the forum, varied in their responses, but the overall tone was of a school board backing away from the airport area high school project so quickly it was in more danger of an accident than a hungry Central student.
The school board members tripped over themselves to deplore the deplorably deplorable conditions at High Point Central, which most claimed never to have noticed. The school board has a massive, 1,424 student high school, occupying a large property in the middle of High Point, and whose enrollment is projected to increase to 1,641 by 2,021 – but it had apparently never noticed it before.
Belton said it was disturbing "to hear these reports" – as if High Point were Mars, and the news of the maintenance problems had just been relayed from a NASA Mars lander.
Foster said her husband, Otis, is a High Point Central graduate who bleeds blue blood – the school's color.
"We are committed to doing better at High Point Central," she said. "These conditions are unacceptable and deplorable. I will not support building another school without addressing the needs of High Point Central."
Scratch one vote for the airport area high school.
Alexander said a previous school board voted for the airport area high school, and that the school board members could have simply accepted the vote of that school board, but that a few heroic school board members had implored Duncan to take the issue back to the people.
"That's what we've one here tonight," Alexander said. "We have heard you loud and clear ... we will not let you down."
Alexander's statement was laughable on so many levels that it was hard to know when to start laughing.
The school board pursued the imaginary Taj Mahal airport area high school with relentless idiocy for four years, backed off the plan only after forced to by a lack of land, and was forced to go back to "the people" after four years only because the airport area high school plan had collapsed utterly and it suddenly wanted support for it – or else support from the public to pressure the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to sell the school bonds intended for the proposed school to use elsewhere.
Alexander and most of the members of the school board were ignorant of the disasters along the way until they were reported in closed session after the fact, or until they read about them. Duncan and a few cronies controlled the entire building program, and the other school board members closed their eyes and rubber-stamped it heedlessly until forced to deal with the results of their lack of oversight.
The commissioners come into play because they are the only ones who can approve the issuance of school bonds, which despite the name, are issued by Guilford County, not the school system.
Most of the rest of the school board members urged the audience to pressure the commissioners to sell the bonds, even though the airport area high school won't be built.
"We are the only elected body in Guilford County that can't raise money for ourselves," Belton complained. "I'm thrilled by this turnout ... but I'm always puzzled that the turnout doesn't transfer to our funding body."
With the fight over the airport area high school over, attention will turn to the commissioners. If they sell the bonds, attention will turn to the fight over the spoils, which is likely to get ugly.
After the failure to find land for the proposed schools, the Guilford County Schools Facilities Department came up with the $76 maintenance list – but only 91 of the school system's 124 schools are on it.
Price gave the audience the cell phone numbers of County Commissioners Bill Bencini, Bruce Davis and Commissioner-elect Hank Henning.
Price said, "Those men aren't in bed until twelve at night, and they love hearing from their constituents."