A request from a charter school developer set off a spat among two members of Alamance County’s governing board that, in a different setting, might’ve earned both of them a trip to the principal’s office.
As it was, commissioners Pam Thompson and Bill Lashley spent several minutes quarrelling over the respective merits of charter schools versus traditional public schools – notwithstanding the repeated attempts of the board’s chairman to break up the tiff between the two fellow Republicans.
This uncharacteristic dispute ultimately erupted on Monday after a designated public comment period that rounded out the board’s latest regularly-scheduled meeting.
Among those who approached the commissioners during the comment period was Peter Morcombe, a developer of several successful charter schools whose previous projects include River Mill Academy and the Clover Garden School in Alamance County.
Morcombe had previously approached the commissioners to request $2 million in federal pandemic relief to bankroll another local charter school that he has christened Unity Global Academy. On Monday, however, Morcombe merely requested a letter of support for this project, which he said recent developments have made it possible for him to have up and running by August – without any direct financial support from the county.
“All I need is a letter from you gentlemen,” the charter school enthusiast added, “and that would greatly improve my chances of getting my emergency application approved [by the state].”
This seemingly modest request seemed like a real winner to Lashley, who conceded that parents have previously approached him about admission into Morcombe’s existing schools, whose seats are distributed by lottery to students in the Alamance-Burlington school system.
“I’m impressed,” the commissioners told Morcombe after he concluded his pitch. “We don’t normally have individuals come in front of us and tell us that they can build us a school and it won’t cost us any money… We’re in the process of building a school for $100-plus million – for a thousand students… I’m just totally amazed that you can actually do this with no funding from local government.”
Morcombe’s proposal didn’t go over nearly as well with Thompson, who had served on the Alamance-Burlington school board before her elevation to the board of commissioners in 2020.
“I’m not going to let public schools get beat up because they have low scores and they have some troubled kids,” Thompson asserted after Lashley’s elegy to the charter school model. “Public school doesn’t have a lottery…and no one can be turned away from a public school,” she added. “I want everybody to go to the school that they want to. But I will not sit here and let anybody think that one school is better than the other.”
Thompson went on to note that, in addition to her experience on the local school board, she put her own children through the county’s school system and now has a daughter who teaches in one of those much-maligned public schools.
Thompson’s personal testimony didn’t seem to move Lashley, who asked his fellow commissioner to consider the parents who are clamoring to get the kids out of the schools where they’re assigned.
“Ms. Thompson,” he said, “I hope you understand that it’s the parents in that ‘bad address’ who are reaching out to [Morcombe]. They want to pull the rip cord out of public schools because they understand the public schools are failing their child.”
The back and forth between the two commissioner grews especially heated when Lashley made a pejorative reference to the “local teacher’s union” that Thompson deemed a gross mischaracterization of the Alamance-Burlington Association of Educators. It was then that John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, tried to gavel down his two bickering colleagues – but to no avail.
Paisley attempted to intervene once again when the argument turned to Lashley’s childless status, which Lashley insisted is “by design.”
“I think you ought to start going with me to [meetings of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council],” Thompson replied, “to learn the reality of what our youth is.”
“Can I ask you two to take that out in the hallway?” Paisley interjected.
“No,” Thompson shot back. “We’re commissioners. We’re elected, and we have the right to disagree on stuff like this.”
In the end, Paisley only managed to break up the squabble by referring Morcombe’s request to county staff for a more thorough review. It wasn’t long before Thompson reverted to a more amicable mood.
“I think that’s the first time we got in a fight,” she went on to tell Lashley once she had collected herself.
“I don’t think it was a fight,” Lashley objected.
“I don’t see any blood over there,” added commissioner Steve Carter, “so I guess it wasn’t really a fight.”
OTHER ABSS NEWS IN THIS WEEK’S (MARCH 24) EDITION:
ABSS trims increase it will ask commissioners to fund: https://alamancenews.com/school-board-tentatively-agrees-to-trim-2-5m-from-increase-in-county-budget-request/
Teachers’ panel: too many extraneous assignments given to teachers: https://alamancenews.com/teachers-we-are-juggling-flaming-chainsaws-every-day/
New high school construction continues on schedule: https://alamancenews.com/construction-of-new-high-school-continuing-on-schedule/