News: CJ Exclusives

New Ferry’s Help for Children Limited

Documents show that new Currituck service won’t long be needed to shuttle schoolchildren

Advocates for the new ferry service across the Currituck Sound pitched the project as being necessary for the transportation of schoolchildren, but documents suggest that improving transportation for resort workers was a significant goal. Only 12 students are expected to ride the ferry this year. And new schools coming into service should eliminate the school-crowding issue that was the main reason given for the ferry service.

Currituck County officials said the new ferry service was necessary because Currituck public school students on the Outer Banks would no longer be able to attend the closer Dare County public schools. They said the bus ride for students to the mainland would be too long. With State Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight of Dare County as the driving force, the N.C. General Assembly appropriated $834,000 in June 2003 for the project.

A 50-foot, 50-passenger, enclosed-cabin pontoon boat is to run between the Currituck mainland and Corolla on the Outer Banks. Even though the new boat is still in Florida awaiting Coast Guard inspection, school officials hope it will be in operation by the start of school Aug. 17.

The legislation establishing the service said the ferry was to be in operation on or before May 1, 2004 — coincidentally just before the start of the tourist season. At press time, Carolina Journal was still waiting for a response from North Carolina Department of Transportation officials about the reason for the delay.

A Jan. 28, 2003, memo from Ferry Division Director Jerry Gaskill to DOT Secretary Lyndo Tippett gave an overview of the project including cost estimates and dredging requirements. At the conclusion of his memo, Gaskill discussed the involvement of two individuals in the planning process.

“As you are aware we have been having ongoing discussions with Mr. Earl Slick’s representative Allen Ives,” Gaskill wrote. “These discussions have centered on Mr. Slick’s support of this project and the prospect of Mr. Slick’s participation someway in this project financially. At this juncture, although Mr. Slick continues to fully support this route, he is concerned about a perceived conflict of interest with his financial participation. Because Mr. Slick does not want to project any perception problems for both himself and DOT, he had declined to participate at this time.”

Earl Slick is the founder and owner of the Sanderling Inn, which now does business under the name of his company Turnpike Properties. Allen Ives is an employee of Turnpike Properties.

According to information posted on the resort’s web site, “The Sanderling Resort, Spa and Conference Center is the most exclusive address and the only resort located in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Currituck Sound, the Sanderling features luxury accommodations and amenities in a quaint and intimate setting.” The resort is located in northern Dare County next to the Currituck County boundary.

Ives told CJ about his involvement in the meetings: “What I was doing was finding out if it was going to happen. We wanted to see if employees could ride.” He said his boss had never considering financing it. “Financing was not something I was authorized to do. If he ever indicated that, I was not part of it,” he said. When asked how many meetings he attended, he said he thought it was only one.

Another letter dated Feb. 3, 2003 from Currituck County Chamber of Commerce President Willo Winterling to Ferry Division Administrative Officer Charlie Utz highlighted the movement of workers. “Although this project is being considered as a means to transport school children, it presents a greater opportunity to provide year-round support to our businesses on the Outer Banks and further enhance our growing tourism industry,” Winterling wrote.

“Considering the remoteness of the Currituck Outer Banks, Corolla businesses face the challenge of finding employees willing to drive the extra distance to work.”

Overcrowding issue was temporary

Since there are no public schools on the Outer Banks section of Currituck County, Currituck had a longstanding arrangement with Dare County to accept Currituck students. Currituck paid Dare County a per-student tuition expense based on actual costs.

Dare County School Superintendent Sue Burgess told CJ that because of crowding in its elementary schools the Dare school board decided in 2002 that Currituck elementary schoolchildren would be phased out of the Dare system. Students in grades six through 12 could continue in the Dare system through the 2006-07 school year. An agreement acknowledging the new relationship between the systems was signed July 2002.

In January 2003 the Currituck school board decided that all Currituck County public-school students would be required to attend Currituck schools. An exception was made for those students currently enrolled in Dare middle or high schools. They could remain in Dare schools through graduation.

“The rising tuition was becoming an issue,” Currituck County School Superintendent Mike Warren said. He acknowledged that the 12 students projected to use the ferry this year was a relatively low number, but that when the project was conceived, 40 students were involved. “We believe the ferry will provide a quick, easy access and the number of riders will grow as people with schoolchildren move into the Corolla area,” he said.

But the crowding situation has changed since Currituck officials first requested the ferry service. A new high school in northern Dare County opens this year and a new elementary school is scheduled to open in Nags Head next year. Burgess acknowledged that her system should have room for the Currituck elementary children in 2005, but the decision would be up to both school boards to negotiate.

The new ferry service has been plagued with problems. In addition to the start-up delays, state and federal agencies have launched investigations into illegal dredging by the Ferry Division. The Corolla landing site on the Outer Banks side was damaged in April by a Ferry Division workboat that used its propeller to cut out a large section of the sound bottom. Gaskill told newspapers the incident was an accident and happened when the boat got stuck marking the channel.

Don Carrington is associate publisher of Carolina Journal.