“Save our school! Save our school!”
Those were the chants of audience members holding up signs bearing those same words at a Wednesday meeting in the O.R. Pope Elementary School gymnasium to determine the future of the school.
The audience members began chanting after a member of the Nash-Rocky Mount Board of Education made a motion to move the O.R. Pope School, including the students and staff, to the D.S. Johnson – Fairview adjoined facility effective the start of the 2014-2015 school year.
But the board voted to close the doors of Pope to students, with the Rev. Robert Bynum the only member voting no.
Kindergarten through second-grade students at Pope will be moved to Fairview and third-through fifth-grade students will be moved to Johnson.
The board also voted to form an ad hoc committee consisting of 15 members to explore possible future uses for the Pope facility.
Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Jackson made the proposal to move the Pope student body of 288 to another, newer facility, citing the safety of the Pope facility and the age and condition of the facility as reasons for the move. Pope was built in 1940 and was named after Oliver R. Pope, a respected principal and educator.
“I understand the sensitivity, I understand the commitment. I understand the community’s love for the building. My love is for the children,” Jackson said. “Can I say that something will happen in this building tomorrow? No? Can I say something will not happen in this building tomorrow? No. But ... there are systems failing in this building and there are facility issues that make this in my mind a building that we have to look at closely in terms of making the appropriate decisions in terms of what’s best for children.”
Several board members talked about their safety concerns with the Pope building and lack of funding to maintain the building as reasons for their decision to move the Pope student body.
“Our superintendent has told us that the place is unsafe,” said board member William “Bill” Sharpe. “With that said, life is more precious than bricks and mortar.”
Board member Doneva Chavis-Battle shared similar thoughts, saying she could not face a parent or grandparent in the room if a child was hurt or killed in the Pope building because it was unsafe.
Board member Reginald Silver said he wished the issue of allocating more funding to schools on the same side of town as Pope could have been addressed years ago, but as it is, the board has to move forward, and at this time, the money to keep Pope an active school simply is not there.
“If we’re talking about saving Pope School, we’re talking about millions of dollars,” Silver said. “Where is the money?”
Bynum expressed his concerns about what will happen if Pope closes its doors.
“This community is anchored to this school,” Bynum said. “There won’t be any schools in the black community ... because we will have closed them all.”
Bynum also made a motion to add public comments to the meeting’s agenda so the audience could have one more opportunity to speak before the board’s final decision on Pope.
One of the speakers, city Councilman Andre Knight expressed his displeasure with what he termed a “movement to close all schools in East Rocky Mount,” and pleaded with the board to keep Pope open.
“It is a sad commentary that we have the first black superintendent for the Nash-Rocky Mount schools, the first African-American majority school board, and the first business of the day is to close the oldest, historic school, the landmark of this community. It’s a travesty, and it’s unreal,” Knight said. “Teachers have fought, parents have fought, because we knew that these schools were not funded like the rest of these schools. We knew that, and today we have an opportunity to move those schools up to the top of the line ... Now’s the time to do right by our students and to do right by our school. Please save our school.”
Former Pope student E.C. Cooper expressed similar thoughts after the meeting adjourned.
“Every school that’s been moved or been torn down, it’s been from the black side of town. If you live long enough, there’s not going to be a school on this side of town, it’s all going to be on the Nash side,” Cooper said. “I think it’s important to keep something in the community that represents us.”
Former student Vanessa Penny-Dennis spoke passionately about her desire to keep the doors of Pope open, even after the meeting adjourned.
“We want to do whatever it takes to preserve this historical school,” Penny-Dennis said. “We want to leave Pope open, right where it is, fix it, make it safe.”
While the doors of Pope will close to students next school year, whether Pope will remain as the name of a school in the Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools has yet to be determined. The superintendent recommended changing the name of Fairview to O.R. Pope and the board was set to vote on that proposal, but Bynum recommended tabling that discussion to a later date. The board agreed.