Wednesday, June 12, 2024

State representative proposes UNCW land grant to improve ‘abysmal’ Isaac Bear conditions

The Isaac Bear campus at University of North Carolina Wilmington was established in 2007, and has been in need of improvements for years. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
The Isaac Bear campus at University of North Carolina Wilmington was established in 2007, and has been in need of improvements for years. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Representative Deb Butler called conditions ‘abysmal’ and ‘grim,’ but offered a solution to what she called the need for long-overdue improvements

WILMINGTON — A state representative is intervening with a plan to break the apparent deadlock over improving conditions Isaac Bear Early College.

Last week Representative Deb Butler addressed the issue in a letter to University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) Chancellor Dr. Jose Sartarelli, writing, “Simply put, the facility that houses IBEC has outlived its functionality and is inadequate. I won’t detail the conditions because I know that you are aware that the building is in dire need of replacement.”

Issac Bear, one of the county’s two early colleges, is run as a so-called “experimental” partnership between New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) and UNCW.

According to the memorandum of understanding between the two parties, NHCS has traditionally funded supplies and operations, and reimbursed UNCW for course fees and books, while UNCW has been responsible for providing classroom space.

Conditions at Isaac Bear

A parking lot with a dumpster and a basketball net is the open space for Isaac Bear Early College High School. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
A parking lot with a dumpster and a basketball net is the open space for Isaac Bear Early College High School. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Isaac Bear opened in 2006 at Snipes Elementary before moving to its current location on UNCW’s campus in 2007. Since then, it has remained in modular buildings, while the student population has more than doubled over a decade.

In an interview, Butler called the current conditions at Isaac Bear “abysmal.”

Butler described students sitting in hallways, eating outside at picnic tables on a small concrete patio due to the undersized cafeteria.

Overflow from Isaac Bear's cafeteria led to these picnic benches tucked behind the building. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
Overflow from Isaac Bear’s cafeteria led to these picnic benches tucked behind the building. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

“It’s just really grim conditions,” Butler said. “You’ve got no real outside space, no storage space, you’ve got a cafeteria that’s so small it looks like it’s for 3rd graders.”

These conditions, Butler said, were in stark contrast to the mission — and success — of the Issac Bear program.

“It was supposed to be an experiment – that experiment has borne fruit because these students are exceptional. The graduation rate and the performance level of these students are great,” Butler said. “It’s just a shame that their educational environment doesn’t measure up.”

Deadlock, but a possible solution

Butler said for years she’s heard both UNCW and NHCS suggest that the other party help expand Isaac Bear’s facilities. The issue was covered in Star News last year, and earlier this year by WHQR.

In both cases, no concrete plan was put forward by either UNCW or NHCS staff.

She noted that agreement between the two does have some grey areas, concerning who is responsible for an expansion and how it would be paid for. While Butler said her interpretation of the agreement is that UNCW is responsible, she also notes that the county has considered funding it — but has no land to build on at the current Isaac Bear site.

“I’ve discussed this with [NHCS Superintendent] Tim Markley about this and I’ve heard him say, ‘I can’t build on land that’s not mine,'” Butler said.

Butler’s proposed solution, as she wrote to Sartarelli, ” … is that UNCW identifiy an appropriately sized piece of its land on campus, preferably located adjacent or convenient to the Watson School and give it to New Hanover County for the purpose of building a new IBEC…I have heard you say how wise the original Trustees of UNCW were to acquire such a large footprint for the campus to grow and expand. And so, it would seem to me that the university could contribute the land and then the County could take on the task of finding the funding for a new facility.”

Butler added that this solution is “particularly timely” because Raleigh may soon pass a statewide school construction bond that would – as currently written – provide around $17 million for New Hanover County.

What’s next?

According to UNCW Chief Communications Officer Janine Iamunno, Sartarelli is out of the country and has not read Butler’s letter. Iamunno confirmed that he will respond directly upon his return.

NHCS Superintendent Dr. Tim Markleysaid “it’s a little early to be commenting on this especially since we’ve not had a chance to sit down with University officials to formally discuss this proposal. I do appreciate the efforts of Representative Butler and others to try to bring a solution forward.”

NHCS Board Chairperson Lisa Estep said, “I would like to add that the university has been a great partner to the school system and I’m sure we can work together to find a solution.”

With so many governmental bodies involved — the general assembly, UNCW, NHCS’s Board of Education — a rapid response would be difficult. Still, Butler said she hopes the conditions at Isaac Bear can be addressed before June 2020, when the current agreement between UNCW and NHCS expires.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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