By Steve Woodward
The Moore County School Board met for a daylong work session. Around the lunch hour, members took a break to feast on a catered lunch paid for on the taxpayers’ dime.
Throughout the meeting the board chairman was dismissive of board member David Hensley.
The chair was quite deferential to the Moore Schools superintendent, however.
The chair expressed concern that the budgetary outlook for schools is grim. But when Hensley pointed out that the cost per student budgeted in Moore County Schools has risen about 50 percent in just three years, to $14,701 per student, there was silence.
When Hensley noted that $750,000 has been spent to hire architects to remodel six school gymnasiums, noting that a single architect could have been hired full time for considerably less than $750,000, there was mostly silence.
Around the same time, a staff member reported that the fourth quarter 2022-23 budget would exceed earlier projections by $805,556, which is only slightly more than $750,000.
Hensley presented a report to the board showing how students are forced to pay nominal fees for the “right” to attend school, take an art class, or participate in graduation. He noted that the fees are collected in direct violation of the North Carolina Constitution, which provides for a free education for every student.
Hensley suggested removing some of the fees, but the board chair dismissed the fiscally conservative proposal, saying, “I don’t think we can pay for it right now.”
Another board member spoke up during a discussion about identifying age inappropriate books in school libraries and targeting these for removal. A fellow board member said, “We should not be in a position of banning books.”
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that your humble author lapsed into Biden-esque confusion and mistakenly posted a commentary written after a school board meeting in 2019-2020, when board chair Libby Carter and, later, board chair Pam Thompson, repeatedly were dismissive of Hensley for daring to address uncomfortable topics involving excess spending.
But you would be wrong. The aforementioned took place during the board’s July 10, 2023, work session. Today.
The board seated last December, with Robert Levy named chair, had been elected, first in 2020 after victories at the ballot box by Hensley, Philip Holmes and Levy, and in 2022 (after Ken Benway, Pauline Bruno and Shannon Davis won their races), to reform failing schools, restore campus discipline and rein in profligate spending. Rightfully, there was optimism that a 6-1 conservative majority would steamroll bad policies and banish poisoned curricula of the past.
Now we know why so many citizens decry politics and campaign promises. While this board has several shining achievements worthy of praise, the past three months have seen all of that positive energy replaced by hostility.
The responsibility for this unfortunate about-face lies at the feet of chair Levy, who is deliberately ignoring the will of voters by failing to demonstrate leadership, by ignoring the work of school board sub-committees to help navigate important items onto the monthly agenda, and by alienating his former, most staunch ally, Hensley. It is painful to watch.
Meanwhile, some of the other board members seem at a loss to respond to Levy’s open hostility. They mostly sit silently, bringing little passion to the proceedings. Indeed, they appear hesitant to challenge Levy or question his disruptive conduct. At one point during the aforementioned meeting, Levy interrupted Hensley, shouting, “You’re just wrong!”
Levy referred to Hensley’s contention that a funding “deal” he and Superintendent Tim Locklair have hashed out with the county Board of Commissioners, which controls local education purse strings, is a bad deal.
Hensley, who is a well qualified chair of the school board finance subcommittee, was excluded by Levy from discussions with the commissioners.
He contends that agreeing to a fixed 38 percent cut of the commissioners’ annual pie leaves the school budget vulnerable to inevitable economic fluctuations.
Hensley rightfully fears that fixed annual funding coming from the commissioners will preclude the board from going back to the commissioners when a crisis arises, or inflation surges upward, to request additional funding.
Commissioners chair Nick Picerno has said he will allocate the funds with the understanding that “you guys make it work”. Or as Hensley puts it, Picerno is saying, “Don’t come back asking for an extra nickel.” In other words, live within the means of your 38 percent.
There always will be debates about budgeting and spending on public education.
But Moore County citizens did not vote for a school board hijacked by a chair who has lost his way, obsessed with silencing conservative advocate Hensley. If he cares about education reform, Levy resigns.
Board member Bruno said it best about Levy’s tyrannical bent.
“This stops right now. We are trying to win (community) respect, their trust. To do this is awful. You are destroying the work we have done since we were elected.”