The Richmond County Board of Education held a public hearing Tuesday evening in Hamlet to receive comments from the public about the closing of Leak Street School on Leak Street in Rockingham, and no one spoke in opposition.
Associate Superintendent Robert Beck said he didn’t anticipate anyone at the public hearing speaking in opposition of the closing of the building that is no longer being used for school. According to Beck, the students of Leak Street High School have been relocated to the building on Mizpah Road in Rockingham that also contains the Transitional School.
“The hearing is to inform the public on the cessation of using the building as a school,” said Beck. “In 2007 we began a realignment of the schools and this will be our fifth building we’ve gotten rid of. The plan is that once the Board of Education deems it surplus, we’ll offer it to the county, who will either refuse it or accept it. Then the board will offer it to the Leak Street Cultural Center who is interested in it. The board would offer it to them at a nominal price.”
School Board Chair Wiley Mabe called the meeting to order at 6:30 p.m., and let the public know commentators each had 5 minutes to speak.
J.C. Watkins, president of Leak Street Alumni and former teacher and principal, spoke first about the history of the school and the impact it has had on the community. He said the last time he addressed the school board, 20 years ago, it was about the same topic; closing the Leak Street School.
“I believe my last appearance to say anything to the board was about 20 years ago, about the same topic, the closing of the school,” said Watkins. “The students were to be moved to Washington Street School. I was retired at the time. The building was to be bulldozed. But some of my former students came to me and said, ‘Go to the school board. We don’t want it closed.’ At the time it was a one-story building and it was dilapidated. The board finally agreed to a hearing and (the building) had to be auctioned at the courthouse.”
At the auction, according to Watkins, during the first auction, no one placed a bid. During the second auction, a young man bid $100 and the deal was closed. The building was deeded to the Leak Street Alumni, Inc. in the early 1990s. Watkins said the community “was very much disturbed about losing the school. We estimated that it needed $300,000 in repairs.”
The Leak Street Alumni, Inc., along with the community, raised the money needed to repair the building, and it has since been kept up, said Watkins.
Watkins spoke about the programs still present at the school and the role it plays today, but also about the role it played in his early life and how it lead him to a teaching career.
“I came out of the cotton fields of Hoke County to go to school at Leak Street Colored High School,” said Watkins. “My parents thought I was too small and skinny for labor, so I went to school.”
As Watkins recalled his youth and coming to teach at Leak Street for his first job, members of the audience — some former students of Watkins’ — were both proud to hear his story and sad about the occasion.
“The school went through many phases,” said Watkins. “It’s been of a lot of service to the community. We understand your reasons for closing the school and we didn’t come to ask you not to close it. There is great history there and the community is proud of it. I just want to come to let you know even though you made this decision, there is a certain amount of sadness with the closing.”
School board member Irene Aiken spoke up and said she too attended the school, and when she returned to Richmond County after studying, her first job back in the county was teaching at Leak Street School.
Beulah Crenshaw McRae spoke after Watkins and explained that she had spent her career in the school system as well, and wanted to see the building continue to be used as a place where people can learn. She spoke on behalf of retired educators and members of the Leak Street Alumni.
“I’m still in education and the girls and boys of Richmond County need more recreation,” said McRae. “We are interested in the building. What we wish to do is continue our assistance to children, particularly in the Hood Street area. They need more computer education. We could give them that in the afternoon, not just for students but for adults, too. So many adults need assistance, such as young mothers who have four and five kids and think they can feed them all by working at McDonald’s. We could give them cooking classes. We could help kids in other ways.”
McRae said the land below the swimming pool could be turned into a tennis court.
“Our work is free,” said McRae. “We are not asking for any money to do this. It’s just something we love.”
Anna Thomas, a former student of Watkins’, spoke as well. She said the commercial kitchen the school has could be used for fundraisers or a small restaurant. She said there was a lot of collaboration going on and many had ideas for the building. She asked the board to consider letting them keep the building and continue to take care of it. She said the building has been free from vandalism, and that the Leak Street Alumni would continue to take care of it as they have been.
The hearing was closed half an hour after opening, with no decisions having been made.
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at email@example.com.