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Packed crowd angry over decisions blasts school board

School Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon and Halifax County School Board members got an earful Monday night during the board’s regular monthly meeting held in Halifax.

A standing room only crowd of upset and concerned residents packed the meeting room, with several taking turns voicing their objections to recent administrative and board decisions that left employees demoted, terminated or with adjusted salaries.

Although the superintendent and a majority of school board members maintain these actions were taken to balance the budget, many residents simply weren’t buying it Monday night.

Nearly 300 people listened attentively as three residents blasted the superintendent and trustees for their recent actions. An overflow crowd spilled out into the hallway.

The Rev. Frank Coleman Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church of Ferry Street in South Boston, who also serves as president of the South Boston/Halifax County Branch of the NAACP and as a member and spokesperson for the division of clergy of the Banister Missionary Baptist Association, accused the superintendent and board members of bringing turmoil to countless numbers of faithful and long-term employees in the school system and issued an ultimatum for it to stop immediately.

In less than a year, Coleman said, “All you have done is destroy and dismantle these people’s lives. It is time for you to stop it.”

He described board actions that resulted in demotions of certain employees  “who absolutely did nothing to deserve demotion” as “evil.”

“I.E. Mrs. Crowder basically was forced to retire,” said Coleman, naming Director of Student Services Beverly Crowder as one employee affected by these actions.

Crowder, a former principal at Cluster Springs Elementary School and Halifax County Middle School, was moved to Central Office this past year into the newly created Director of Student Services position under the new superintendent.

After hearing Coleman mention Crowder by name in the open meeting, Chairman Kimberly Farson quickly warned Coleman, “No names Mr. Coleman please. No names can be discussed, no names can be mentioned during citizen comment.”

“Excuse me. Oh OK. You didn’t tell me that…but um, you know. Anyhow as I was saying, how evil it is to demote a person who absolutely did nothing to deserve it,” added Coleman.

Coleman told board members in his opinion this was a classic case of “plantation mentality in the context of classism.

“In other words, since this administration is now head, you conclude that you can do what you desire to people because the bottom line is this, the employees need what you have, their jobs, so you don’t care what the agreement was before and you don’t care how good a teacher or worker your employees have been to prove their worth. They’re going to do what you say and take what you do to them and like it. The superintendent and any board member that has agreed with these actions should be ashamed,” Coleman added.

He suggested board members could have resolved these issues with compassion for everyone by going forward with taking these actions against newly hired personnel rather than “renege on contracts already agreed upon for years in good faith with your present employees.

“That is totally unethical, dishonest and immoral,” Coleman accused.

He concluded his remarks calling attention to a specific incident that occurred last Friday after he had been invited to meet with school board members and the superintendent.

He said he didn’t enter that private meeting even though he had been invited as a community leader to attend because upon his arrival before entering the room he listened as he was being discussed in an unfavorable manner.

“I was so disappointed in what I heard I did not enter. I just went back home. Tell me what warrants discussion of me by you of whom I sit next to? So my advice to you is don’t call people with the impression that you care for their opinion as community leaders, when in reality you really don’t care for them as people,” Coleman concluded.

Coleman’s wife, Margaret, also spoke about the reduction in salary scales for some employees.

“This journey began in March,” said Margaret.

She said she was hoping the board would stand firm in their conviction that taking from a person’s households would be “an immoral act and a financial burden.” A teacher at South Boston Elementary, Margaret said she waits to receive her contract for the next school year.

“We have set ourselves up for failure,” said Margaret. “People are intimidated to speak.”

She asked board members and administration to put themselves in the place of teachers and staff of the school system.

The Rev. William Carr of Banister Hill Baptist Church of Halifax questioned board members why there was a need to lay off and make cuts to some school employees while others are able to receive raises.

Carr also addressed demotions and discipline.

Following the citizen comments, Farson opened the floor for board members to address these comments.

ED-7 trustee R. K. “Dick” Stoneman replied to Margaret Coleman’s comment about people being intimidated, saying, “You’ve got my word. Call me anytime, and I will talk to you.

“Absolutely we make mistakes, but we’re trying,” he added.

“Speak up on a regular basis. Call every single board member…it troubles me that people are scared to speak because they’re scared to lose their job,” said ED-4 trustee Cheryl Terry.

ED-5 trustee Roger Long pointed out the school system has lost $11 million and cut over 120 jobs since he’s been on the board the past five years.

ED-1 trustee Phyllis Smith said she was “very disappointed to hear the board referred to as having a ‘plantation mentality.”’ 

“We’re quick to jump on negativity. We have teachers achieving at the highest levels. We have students achieving at the highest levels. Work with us…we need to work together,” said Farson.

ED-8 trustee Walter Potts apologized to those in attendance for feeling like that had a reason to come out and speak for what was believed to be an “injustice to those who have worked in the county.

“For which I happen to agree with…I have a true concern that there are some things going on here that are just not right,” said Potts.

“It saddens me tremendously that you have to come here and register your complaints about something that I think could have been handled a heck of a lot better than it was…Whether this board wants to acknowledge it or not, the morale in this school system is just shot,” Potts concluded. 

ED-2 trustee Karen Hopkins did not attend Monday night’s meeting.

 

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