With no critical decisions on its agenda, the Moore County Board of Education devoted the bulk of its regular meeting on Monday to a tribute to former member Bruce Cunningham.
When he died last month, Cunningham was the board’s longest-serving member. He represented Southern Pines and Aberdeen for 15 years. Since his death, a white rose has marked his place on the dais.
Now beginning the process of finding someone to fill out his unexpired term, the board remembered Cunningham’s myriad contributions to the community and role in helping guide Moore County Schools. School staff and fellow board members remembered him as someone who viewed no detail involving students as beneath his personal involvement.
Soon after his hire in 2015 as Pinecrest’s principal, Bob Christina said Cunningham was his personal guide on a daylong tour of Moore County — for which Christina himself had allotted about three hours. Christina stayed at Pinecrest for three years and in that time led the school through a dramatic culture shift.
In that day with Cunningham, Christina said he learned nearly everything about Moore County, from Aberdeen to Robbins. He learned something else, too, that indicated the task ahead of him might not be such an uphill battle.
“I learned that there was a person on the Board of Education committed to community children like nobody I had ever met in all my experience serving in four school systems in North Carolina,” said Christina. “I learned that this person was absolutely the most deliberate person I’d ever met in my life and would take the time, in detail, to tell me everything the right way. I learned that the Board of Education chair took the time, in his kindness and thoughtfulness, in order to ensure my success.”
Board Chair Helena Wallin-Miller also remembered her first one-on-one encounter with Cunningham, soon after she joined the board in 2015.
“I think it was ‘Bruce training’ or something, because he was trying to bring me up to speed on a lot of things,” she said.
Over the course of the conversation, Wallin-Miller realized she was speaking with the man behind many of the Southern Pines institutions that set the town apart from so many surrounding it: Springfest, the Sunrise Theater, the nationally-acclaimed interactive playground at Southern Pines Primary.
“All of these things that I had done with my family in terms of enjoying Southern Pines and had been a part of my family’s life in the area, he had helped create,” she said. “You didn’t know it just from looking at him or talking to him. He was very quiet about some of these accomplishments, and he did it with his passion and his expertise and his internal drive that made all of this happen.”
Over the last few years, Cunningham volunteered his considerable expertise to the Pinecrest Speech and Debate team, which his wife Ann Petersen coached. Last year’s team co-captain, Loreleigh Nagy, remembered Cunningham’s flexibility in filling whatever role the moment required. Those roles ranged from helping a debater strengthen their argument to coaching the boys in the finer points of arranging a necktie. On out-of-state trips, Cunningham was just as willing to fade into the background and snap photos of the team.
Nagy and her co-captain Louis Watson introduced an award in Cunningham’s honor at the team’s year-end recognitions this past spring. After Cunningham’s death, the teams’ booster club elevated the Bruce Cunningham Award for Leadership to a cash scholarship for a senior team member who embodies “a selfless dedication to team, school and community.”
“He saw the potential in all of us, to better ourselves even when we didn’t win our event, and he saw our potential to humble ourselves when we did,” said Nagy. “Our new speech and debate shirts remind us to unleash our inner Bruce, unleash our appreciation of the small moments of meaningfulness, unleash our ability to see through others’ flaws, unleash our own potential.”
It was at Cunningham’s suggestion, after a lengthy chat at a North Moore High event in 2006, that Pam Thompson first ran for a school board seat. Thompson recalled that Cunningham’s dedication to everything involving Moore County’s youth led to the two of them spending a day volunteering with the Backpack Pals program.
“Bruce had a passion for trying to ensure equality and equity for some of our underprivileged students in our county,” she said. “He wanted to make sure they had the same opportunity as everyone else, and he went the extra mile to make sure that literally no child was left behind.”
The board presented Petersen with a plaque honoring Cunningham and his role, as he often described himself, as “one man in an army of volunteers.”
Superintendent Bob Grimesey, though, flipped that phrase on its head in his depiction of Cunningham.
“In my experience, I saw Bruce as a one-man army of volunteers,” he said.
“If he were here, Bruce would be the first to assure everyone that he maintains great confidence in each of you, his surviving school board colleagues. He would tell you that you possess the devotion to the common good, the good judgment, the experience and the intuitive instinct to find the right person to pick up his torch and help guide our school district and our community.”
Cunningham’s term was not set to expire until December 2020. Now in the process of appointing someone else to serve out his term, the board will accept applications until Aug. 20. Eligible candidates must also live in the district Cunningham represented, which includes Aberdeen and part of Southern Pines.
In Other Business
During the period of Monday’s meeting open to public comment, the school board heard from a handful of people weighing on the board’s ongoing re-evaluation of the district’s school attendance lines.
The schools have discussed two potential redistricting plans, which would affect every public school in Moore County to varying degrees, and Grimesey is expected to make a final recommendation to the board next month. Changes will most likely be phased in over the 2020 and 2021 school years as new schools in Southern Pines, Aberdeen and Pinehurst open.
Most of the speakers on Monday expressed a vote of confidence in the school board’s priorities and the work it has done so far.
“Ideally a public education should level the playing field for all of our external environmental variances and afford each child access to the same quality teachers, the same quality extracurricular programs, the same enrichment experiences,” said Alexa Roberts, who will have a student at McDeeds Creek this fall. She is also a member of the Whispering Pines Village Council.
“It’s very important for us all to remember that we have an opportunity here to help level the playing field.”
West Pine Elementary parent Sarah Slusser, though, referred to the original master facilities plan the school board introduced in 2015. The 10 projects in that plan included a new middle school in southern Moore County as well as expansion of West Pine Elementary. The plan’s three highest priorities were expansions at Pinecrest and Union Pines, and the Advanced Career Center “concept” high school now indefinitely on hold.
“The newest draft of the student assignment plan reassigns about 38 percent of the kids in my school. The simple addition would have eliminated the need to reassign any of the students from my school,” said Slusser, who pointed out that the redistricting plans discussed so far are based on enrollment trends that may or may not play out as projected.
“What happens if the predictions are inaccurate and kids are transferred needlessly?”
For Toni Koontz, a longtime teacher at Sandhills Farm Life, the difficulties of teaching in a crowded school will soon be a thing of the past. This coming school year, the new McDeeds Creek Elementary will draw hundreds of students from both Farm Life and Vass-Lakeview.
“I think almost everyone would agree that overcrowding is a very real problem that dramatically affects many aspects of a school,” said Koontz, who taught classes of nearly 30 fourth graders last year in a modular unit.
“To say small-group instruction was challenging is an understatement.”
She said that the inconveniences of a crowded school extend beyond just fitting too many students in one room — teachers in modular buildings are hyper-aware of security thanks to exposure, and waste time walking their students in and out of the building. Lunch periods also begin earlier and end later than ideal as core facilities like the cafeteria also have their limits.
In most cases, the new schools will have greater capacity than the ones they replace. But, especially in eastern Moore County, population growth is expected to place continued stress on Vass-Lakeview and Farm Life.
“Building new schools is a great tool, but it is not the only solution,” said Koontz. “We know, based on the number of housing developments that have already been approved, our numbers are going to continue to increase. We may well be back in a very similar situation … very soon if we don’t do something.”
Another speaker, Anthony McCauley, formerly worked in the schools with Moore Buddies Mentoring and now runs his own program “MALES of Distinction” in five schools to provide mentorship to at-risk boys. McCauley called for those who stand to be moved into new attendance zones to embrace the possibility of joining a new community.
“I want us to get to a point where we can start to develop an appreciation for diversity,” said McCauley. “Let’s unite and not have this fear of the unknown.”