Editor's note: This article was updated at 12:02 p.m. Thursday, June 4, 2020, to include comments from Carteret Community College President Dr. Tracy Mancini.
BEAUFORT — Citing budget concerns, the Carteret County Board of Education voted Tuesday night to not enroll a new freshman class for the 2020-21 fall semester at the Marine Science and Technologies Early College High School.
Under the motion, which passed 6-1, the MaST will continue with rising sophomores and juniors already enrolled at the school, which meets on the campus of Carteret Community College in Morehead City. Melissa Ehlers cast the dissenting vote, encouraging the board to look at all funding sources before making a final decision.
The intent of the “pause” is to enroll more sophomores and juniors because 2019-20 enrollment fell below 100, which is the minimum required to draw down state funding for a principal. Enrollment fell to 91, with the county picking up the tab for the principal’s position. That cost is $105,000, including benefits. The county is also funding six other teachers and staff at the school.
“We’re not closing the school. We are pausing to see where we are,” Board Chairman John McLean said during the meeting, held in the school system’s central office.
The meeting had been advertised as being broadcast on Zoom, with no mention board members would be in the school system’s central office.
On Wednesday, Mr. McLean said in order to abide by the governor’s coronavirus restriction of 10 or less people gathered, the meeting was not open for the public to attend in person, only via Zoom.
As for MaST, which has struggled due to lack of state funding for the three years it’s been open, Mr. McLean said the problem continues to be the money.
Board attorney Neil Whitford, too, said it would be difficult to enroll a freshman class without a guarantee of state funds.
“We still don’t know where the state budget is,” Mr. Whitford said. “It’s hard to play what if’s with the General Assembly.”
In addition, Mr. Whitford expressed concern that of the 50 students who applied for the 2020-21 freshman class, some did not meet the criteria of the school. In order to qualify, students must fall in one of three categories: at-risk students, first generation college students or accelerated learners. The school allows students to earn college and high school credits simultaneously.
County commissioners, who have provided funding for the school the last two years, have asked the school focus more on trades, with students ready to enter the workforce upon graduation.
MaST Principal DeAnne Rosen, who watched the meeting on Zoom, said Wednesday she was surprised at the comments regarding the 50 students who applied for this year’s freshman class.
“Since January of 2020, my staff and I have been planning for the next 50 to enter the hallway. We geared our marketing toward aquaculture and marine trades,” she said in an email to the News-Times. “The class of 2024 was very interested in trade certification, with 45 of the 50 selecting at least one trade area of interest.”
Prior to the vote being taken, Ms. Ehlers appealed for board members to wait until they investigated all funding sources before voting. She also said she would like to hear from CCC President Dr. Tracy Mancini, since the college has also invested time, personnel, the building and other resources.
“I agree that we should be responsible, but we should look at all sources first,” Ms. Ehlers said.
In an email statement Wednesday, Dr. Mancini said, “The College remains hopeful that state supplemental funding for MaST will be approved so the school can continue to operate and thrive on our campus.”
She said the college has been preparing for the additional 50 students expected for the fall semester.
“Expecting an additional 50 students, we began a process of relocating the school to a larger space that was already being renovated as one of our facilities master plan priorities,” she said. “The renovation would have taken place either way. We still plan to move MaST into the new space, which is better suited to their all-school gatherings and lunches.”
Mr. McLean and other board members said they wanted to make a decision so the school’s administration would have time to prepare for the upcoming school year.
Board member Clark Jenkins made the motion to suspend enrollment of the freshman class, with Kathryn Chadwick providing the second.
Earlier in the meeting, Mr. Jenkins said he was concerned about the continued lack of support from state legislators regarding MaST.
“It’s irresponsible of us to not take care of the kids at MaST, and it’s irresponsible of the state when it doesn’t do what it says it’s going to do,” he said. “The responsible thing to do is suspend the freshmen class.”
During the public comment section of the meeting, Assistant Superintendent Blair Propst read three letters from parents and community members in support of MaST. One of those was from Bucky Oliver of Beaufort, who offered to donate $20,000 to the Carteret County School
Foundation to start a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $200,000 needed to fully fund the school for 2020-21.
While board members thanked Mr. Oliver for the offer, Mr. Whitford cautioned them about depending on donations to fund a school.
“It’s not a traditional means of funding, and you should be very careful,” Mr. Whitford said.
MaST parent Dana Vinson Mull of Newport also appealed to the board to keep the school open to all students.
“I want to be clear that my strong and loud voice to keep MaST open was not just because I have a student there. I truly believe that our county deserves to have this school,” she said in her letter.
In a follow-up telephone interview Wednesday, Ms. Mull said she was disappointed in the board’s vote, but understood the members’ concerns about funding.
“I think most of the (MaST) parents’ goal right now is to get the state budget finalized. If the state budget would come through and include the promised funding for early college high schools, we would be OK as a whole,” she said.
Her son, MaST rising sophomore Braydon Southerland, too, said he wants other students to be able to attend the school.
“There are so many opportunities here,” he said. “I’ve had such a good experience here that I want other students to be able to experience what I have.”
Another MaST parent, Merianne Grigoriciuc, said she plans to advocate for the program at the local and state level.
“All states, all counties and all school systems are in unprecedented financial constraints, but to my knowledge Carteret County is the only one limiting innovative and evidence-based educational options that are designed to put money back in the economy sooner by training students at an accelerated rate in trades, occupational skills and for some to get their four-year degree sooner — all of which makes each one more employable in our community,” she said in a letter sent to the News-Times Wednesday. “As citizens, parents, community members and voters, we all have to dig deep, problem solve and not let education and vocational training options be what we look to cut first when the times get difficult.”
As for Ms. Rosen and her staff, the principal said staff would rise to the challenge despite budget cuts that have led to not receiving two new teaching positions for the fall semester.
“We have had four semesters of challenges (Hurricane Florence, death of a student (parent was our only math teacher), Hurricane Dorian, and Covid-19) yet MaST overcame,” she said. “We will continue to overcome obstacles and remain a ‘Beacon’ of light for students…”
This isn’t the first time parents and staff have had to fight for the school. Last year parents, students and community supporters packed the school system’s central office for several public hearings and meetings when the board was planning to close MaST. Parents threatened to take the school district to court to keep MaST open. The episode ended in July 2019 with the board voting to keep the school open.
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.