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Cumberland County school board meeting turns fiery over E.E. Smith relocation


A routine meeting got heated Thursday night when the Cumberland County Board of Education took up the question of a potential site for the new E.E. Smith High School. 

Audience members in the crowd of at least 20 gasped and murmured as Associate Superintendent of Auxiliary Services Kevin Coleman presented information about Stryker Golf Course, the proposed site, to the board. In his presentation, Coleman noted that the golf course was the only suitable and available plot of bare land.

Coleman’s recommendation was that the board present the Stryker Golf Course site, which is located on Fort Liberty property, to the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners as a viable site for the new E.E. Smith High School – but not without tense discussion between board members, Superintendent Dr. Marvin Connelly and multiple interjections from the audience. 

A replacement for the aging high school has long been a topic of discussion, with a recent grant application for $62 million in state funding for the new building referring to the current site at 1800 Seabrook Road as “structurally and educationally inadequate.” The application noted that E.E. Smith’s facilities do not meet ADA and building code requirements.

Prior to the presentation, two E.E. Smith alumni spoke about future plans for the school during the board’s public forum. 

Sharon McDonald Evans, a 1984 graduate, said she did not support placing the high school on federal property and asked for more transparency from the board and school system with alumni. Alexis Andre told the board she wanted the new E.E. Smith to be located on a more fitting site for the school, not somewhere that was merely convenient.

During the discussion on whether to present the location to county commissioners, board members Carrie Sutton and Judy Musgrave spoke in strong opposition to the proposed site. 

“I have made it very clear on many occasions that I do not support a military base site or E.E. Smith being put on [federal land],” Sutton said. “If you have a felony, you can’t be on federal property. We have parents who have felonies. So that alone is a very concerning issue, and it’s something that we should have considered before this even became public.” 

Musgrave, whose daughter graduated from E.E. Smith, echoed Sutton’s concerns.

“You will never get me to throw away the legacy and history of the great E.E. Smith,” said Musgrave, who noted she taught at E.E. Smith. “You will never get my vote. I know it doesn’t mean anything because you have the six votes for what needs to happen, and as long as Dr. Connelly has that, the three of us don’t count anyway.”

Musgrave and Sutton’s remarks were met with vigorous applause from the audience.

Connelly vehemently rejected Musgrave’s allegations.

“We’re not saying this is the site. We’re bringing back a report,” the superintendent said. “All we’re doing is responding to the direction of the board, not to the direction of Dr. Connelly.”

In response to a question from board member Donna Vann, Coleman explained that many proposed locations along Murchison Road were too wet or otherwise deemed unacceptable by engineers hired to assess potential sites.

“All of the other land we’ve looked at has not been feasible,” he said. “Stryker is the only one that experts say will accept a high school on it.” 

Coleman told the board the property would likely be leased by the federal government to the county, similar to current agreements in place at W.T. Brown and Bill Hefner elementary schools.

Connelly said he was not “married” to any particular site and would follow the board’s direction, noting that he only wanted to build a new E.E. Smith High School. 

The tension hit a peak when Musgrave said that she wanted the specifics of who voted for and against the item to be clear. 

“A lot of times, when we say ‘the board,’ we need to say, ‘In a vote of 6 to 3,’” she said. “When you just say ‘the board,’ it makes it seem like we were unanimous and we were all in agreement for it.” 

Connelly, visibly frustrated, replied that he followed the direction of the board, which is determined by a majority vote. 

“All of you signed an ethics document from the state of North Carolina that … you will support the majority of the board,” he said sharply. “I am not gonna sit here and put up with stuff like that without speaking up.” 

Musgrave answered that she had a right to say what she wanted to.

Chairwoman Deanna Jones also said she did not support the new high school going on federal property. 

“You can place a state-of-the-art school anywhere, but I prefer it stay in the neighborhood and not on a military post,” she said. 

Ultimately, the board voted 5-3 to present the Stryker Golf Course site to the commissioners, with Sutton, Musgrave and Jones voting in opposition. Board member Susan Williams was not present at Thursday’s meeting.

In other business:

  • The board unanimously approved its consent agenda.
  • After a 25-minute closed session, the board voted 5-3 to approve Connelly’s recommendation to adjust the salaries of his eight-member cabinet. It was not immediately clear what that adjustment entailed, but Connelly said it was to “align with market conditions and promote retention.” Jones, Musgrave and Sutton voted against the measure. The amount of the salary increase was not stated.
  • The board unanimously nominated Jones to serve on the North Carolina School Boards Association’s Legislative Committee.

The board will next meet at 6 p.m. on Feb. 13 at the Central Services Building.

Reporter Lexi Solomon can be reached at lsolomon@cityviewnc.com or 910-423-6500.

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