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Mixed emotions at town hall on future of Fayetteville’s E.E. Smith High School


Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect official attendance numbers for the town hall.

If there was one thing the crowd of 230 people in E.E. Smith’s auditorium could agree on Tuesday night, it was that Fayetteville’s beloved historically Black high school needs new facilities.

Applause and cheers came from Golden Bulls and community members alike as Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Dr. Marvin Connelly Jr. and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commanding general of Fort Liberty and the XVIII Airborne Corps, detailed their grand plans for Smith’s future.

“We are committed to building a new E.E. Smith High School,” Connelly said. “The legacy will continue. The heritage will continue. The name will continue.” 

According to information shared with the audience by school officials Tuesday, should the school system’s plans come to fruition, that legacy would manifest in a school that features:

  • A campus 70 to 100 acres in size
  • Spacious classrooms with natural lighting and good ventilation
  • Flexible layouts
  • Specialty classrooms like science labs, computer labs, art studios and music rooms
  • A multipurpose sports field
  • Track and field facilities
  • A gymnasium
  • Tennis courts
  • A baseball field
  • A softball field

But Connelly and other school officials were firm on one point Tuesday: The proposed 1,600-student, 254,479-square-foot Smith won’t be at the school’s current 1800 Seabrook Road site. At 27 acres, that campus, which was built in 1953, is too small and outdated to fit the school’s needs, officials said.

And that was where the crowd began to disagree.

Where should Smith go?

Connelly and Donahue each demonstrated strong support for Smith’s relocation to the current home of Stryker Golf Course on Fort Liberty. The Cumberland County Board of Education voted in January to submit that site as an option to the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners, which has the final say in where the high school will go.

“The cost of that land out there will be $0 to the county,” Donahue promised. “Between DoDEA [the Dept. of Defense Education Activity] and Cumberland County and what [E.E. Smith] Principal [Larry] Parker has already started, this should be the premier STEAM school in the nation.” 

Associate Superintendent of Auxiliary Services Kevin Coleman told the audience the timeline for building a new Smith would be much shorter if the county selects the Stryker site. 

“That would help a ton,” Coleman said, estimating the project would take about two years to complete. 

Donahue emphasized that, should the school go on the Stryker site, it would not be inaccessible to the public behind Fort Liberty gates. Smith’s cultural legacy would not be erased, he said.

“Why does Fort Liberty want to get involved in this? Well, it’s our high school,” he said. “This is in all of our interest.”

Connelly noted that parents and guardians with felonies would have no problem attending their children’s events at the school. People with felony convictions are not permitted on Army bases. 

What other sites were considered?

During the two-and-a-half-hour town hall, Coleman presented the seven other sites that have been in consideration for Smith’s relocation. While the Stryker selection is not official, it is the best option thus far, he said.

 See a map of potential sites here.The sites, and problems identified by school officials, include:

  • Site #1 — Behind Kingdom Impact Global Ministries and McLamb’s Auto Salvage.
    • Problem one: The N.C. Dept. of Transportation would need to decide “if adequate left turn storage and right turn deceleration” is possible on Murchison Road.
    • Problem two: The county would need to buy land from nearby property owners.
    • Problem three: The site has “significant grade changes,” so retaining walls would need to be built.
  • Site #2 — Smith’s current location
    • Problem one: The 27-acre site is not large enough to meet North Carolina Dept. of Public Instruction standards.
    • Problem two: Ferguson-Easley Elementary School across the street would need to be eliminated so Smith could take over that land to have a large enough space. That would mean 386 students would have to be relocated to other schools in the county.
    • Problem three: Parking would have to be located across the street at Ferguson-Easley’s current home.
  • Site #3 — The corner of Shaw Mill and Murchison roads
    • Problem one: The site would be next to an active railroad.
    • Problem two: The NCDOT Municipal Transportation Assistance program had concerns about student drivers, buses, staff and parents having to cross railroad tracks next to the site. 
    • Problem three: Many streams and wetlands are present nearby. 
    • Problem four: The soil may be contaminated. 
  • Site #4 — The current home of Reid Ross Classical School
    • Problem one: The 24.9-acre site isn’t large enough.
    • Problem two: Reid Ross’s 429 students would need to be relocated.
  • Site #5 — Behind the asphalt plant on Murchison Road
    • Problem one: The site would be next to an asphalt plant and active railroad.
    • Problem two: The NCDOT Municipal School Transportation Assistance program had concerns about student drivers, buses, staff and parents having to cross railroad tracks next to the site.
    • Problem three: Many streams and wetlands are present nearby. 
    • Problem four: The soil may be contaminated.
  • Site #6 — Between Bernadine Street and Shaw Road off Murchison Road
    • Problem one: The county would need to acquire many parcels of land to create a large enough site.
    • Problem two: The site still would not likely support the desired enrollment size and needed programs.
    • Problem three: The NCDOT would need to decide “if adequate left turn storage and right turn deceleration” is possible on Murchison Road.
  • Site #7 — Off Honeycutt Road next to Texas Lake
    • Problem one: Extensive retaining walls would need to be built.
    • Problem two: A significant amount of soil would need to be imported. 
    • Problem three: Many streams and wetlands are present nearby.
    • Problem four: It would likely be too expensive to combine the site with adjacent property because of existing streams/wetlands between the locations.

With these considerations in mind, engineers determined the Stryker Golf Course site was the only viable option for Smith’s new home, Coleman said.

‘Our legacy will be gone’

Of the dozens of attendees who spoke during the town hall’s question and answer portion, many shared one overarching concern: Will E.E. Smith be able to retain its legacy as a proud historically Black high school if it moves to Fort Liberty?

“If we do not stand up, our legacy will be gone,” said Angela Hayes, a graduate of the class of 1975. “I am afraid that if it’s put out on Stryker, it will no longer be E.E. Smith.” 

Connelly and Donahue reassured audience members that Smith’s name would not change and that plans to preserve and celebrate its cultural heritage would be a part of the relocation process. But not everyone’s worries were assuaged.

“[Donahue] said this has always been Fort Bragg’s school. That is not true,” said Frances Huggins, a graduate of the class of 1967. “They never made this their choice. During the time I was here, we only received the Black kids from a certain section — never [the] main [part of] post.”

Huggins and others said they were worried the school would become a product of Fort Liberty, not a legacy of the Murchison Road area.

Principal Larry Parker said about 200 of the school’s 965 students come from military families.

As for the fate of the current building that houses Smith, Connelly said, he is committed to ensuring a specialty school, like a career and technical education school, can find its home on Seabrook Road. The building will not stand empty, he said.

Next steps

To move forward with the proposed $160 million school, Connelly said, the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners must take a vote on the Stryker Golf Course site, or select an alternative site.

“From here forward, what happens depends on the board of commissioners,” he said. 

But, he cautioned, community infighting poses a threat to building a new school for Smith, no matter the ultimate location.

“It is critical that we move forward,” Connelly said. “I need your commitment as a community, as alumni, to get behind me as superintendent, get behind this board of ed, get behind this general and this principal who are trying to make this the number-one flagship high school in Cumberland County that everyone wants to get into.” 

And though Chairman Glenn Adams recently told CityView the Smith relocation isn’t on the board’s immediate list of priorities, Connelly indicated it should be. The board of commissioners can fund the project with a general obligation bond, but those can only be put on the ballot in presidential election years, he said. 

That means the board has a little under seven months to take action, or residents will have to wait until 2028 to see progress on a new school. 

“We have got to shake the dust off our feet and get moving to hopefully make that November ballot,” Connelly said. 

The board would have the option to request a limited obligation bond, but the North Carolina Local Government Commission would need to give approval, Connelly said.

“It is going to take the citizens of Cumberland County voting to agree to put the money behind this project,” he said. 

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

This story was made possible by contributions to CityView News Fund, a 501c3 charitable organization committed to an informed democracy.

E.E. Smith High School, Cumberland County schools, Fort Liberty, Marvin Connelly Jr., Christopher Donahue