Supervisors discuss school plans

No decisions were reached on Wednesday night after members representing the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors on the Education Committee met with the full board to discuss the ongoing impasse between the supervisors and the Mecklenburg County School Board over plans to upgrade middle and high schools in the county.

Supervisor David Brankley opened the discussion, noting that members of the school board had voted 5-4 to continue with two high/middle schools, one at either end of the county. Brankley said that as a member of the Education Steering Committee utilized as part of an architectural study that looked into Mecklenburg County secondary school facilities during the spring and summer, he believed the committee had arrived at a consensus to proceed with the plan to build a single consolidated middle and high school complex to be centrally located.

Based on the three studies over the last two-plus decades that have been conducted to examine the schools and improvement options, each of the studies has concluded with the recommendation of a consolidated facility, Brankley said.

He added that the county had paid the consultants good money for the studies and should have confidence in their findings. He also voiced the opinion that the county would be better served with the single facility, with the money saved being used for teacher salaries and improved programming.

Although Brankley said he understands the community spirit and passion shown for keeping the current schools, he believes the county can have the same sort of passion for a single school.

Supervisor Glanzy Spain also spoke out on behalf of the single school plan and pointed out that the school system is currently having some difficulty in securing teachers.

“It just makes sense to put all your money in one pot,” said Spain.

Turning to the much discussed increased distance and travel time for a single centrally located school, Spain said the time spent on busses would not be increased by a vast amount. He concluded by saying that although adults have debated the pros and cons of the two proposals, the students would have much less difficulty in coming together.

“I don’t think the kids would have problems coming together as a county,” said Spain. “I think this can help solve some of the problems. The future is ours, and we need to look at what we realistically need to do.”

Fielding a question about costs, County Administrator Wayne Carter said he had spoken with consultant Hal Hart within the last few days and the figures used in the study had been “a little lower” than those used in a similar study three years ago. He added that speaking with a representative from English Construction, he was told that building in Southside will be slightly more expensive than elsewhere in the Commonwealth because all of the major construction firms that would take on the project are located out of the area.

Carter said the contact at English Construction felt the costs used in the latest study are in line with the current costs of construction. However, he warned that costs are on the increase.

“The longer we wait, the more costs are going up,” said Supervisor Claudia Lundy, chairperson for the Education Committee.

Board of Supervisors Chair Glenn Barbour said he seemed to be “the stray dog in the kennel” and that his view is different, pointing out that when the plan for consolidation was first brought up, the group “rejected it hands down.” He said he pointed out then that the group would need to find out what the citizens want. He added that he had suggested hiring consultants to examine the question, and the citizens favor the two school concept.

“I don’t know why we have two schools. I don’t know why the decision was made 60 some years ago. It’s a large county,” said Barbour. “I guess that played a part in the decision for two.”

Barbour said that for the last few years he has been given the opportunity to speak to the graduating class at both high schools, and while speaking at Bluestone’s graduation, “standing at that podium, looking at the audience, all of a sudden I got this sense of a family atmosphere. The kids all knew each other. They grew up together.”

He added that the parents had been associated for years through group activities for the school.

“They’ve been together for years, and I got a sense of family,” he said. “I question, worry, about us losing that sense of family when we go to a consolidated school. I wonder if we’ve thought about how big this facility is going to be. It’s going to be huge, and my fear is that we will lose a lot of personality we have with two schools.”

Barbour did say that the discussion had gone places it should not have, and that he feels bad over some of the animosity that has grown out of it. He said that Park View was built on one of the major roads in South Hill in full view of citizens and has become a “community school.”  He added that he felt those in the other end of the county might feel entirely different had Bluestone been built on Highway 58 between Boydton and Clarksville, instead of off of the main roads in Skipwith.

Regardless of what decision is reached, Barbour said that he does not want to spend $140 million and doesn’t support it. However, he said whatever project the county settles on must be financially supported.

“We have to fund it and fund it properly,” he said. “The best education costs money, and you can’t do it on the cheap.”

Barbour concluded by urging the leadership of the county, supervisors and school board trustees alike, to support the final decision, regardless of what it is.

Vice Chair Gregg Gordon said that he had listened to the drawbacks and benefits of all of the proposals, the discussions of the school board, input from citizens and the results of three studies addressing the issue over the last more than 20 years. Although he admitted that there is a good deal of support to continue with the two-school system, he is not sure that everyone really realizes the benefits to students and the county from the consolidation plan.

Citing a better staff, more and better teachers, more opportunities for students, more programs including athletics, he said that everything points to a consolidated school as being the best option for the students. He added that he is also concerned about lines drawn between the two halves of the county.

“Everyone should be able to come together and support a community school, or shame on us,” said Gordon.

Gordon said that there is no secret that over the years, the school board has seen a lot of “conflict” between different factions of trustees.

“With consolidation,” he said, “we might see some of those issues go away. Maybe we can get on the same page and make sure we’re putting the kids first.”

Gordon added that he does not want to see the project delayed.

“I’m not sure we have to delay it, but if we do, we do,” he said. “I think we need to do what we can for the consolidated school.”

Outspoken Supervisor Bill Blalock started off by mentioning that he says what he thinks, “And I don’t care who agrees.”

Blalock said that he feels the county spent “a lot of money” on the studies.

“I don’t know if they were right or wrong, but we spent the money, and what they’ve told us is all we have to go on,” he said.

Blalock added that while he wants to ensure that students get the best education possible, at the same time he wants to be sure the county does not spend taxpayer money unnecessarily. Blalock added that if the single school option delivers the best educational opportunities and saves money, he supports it.

Admitting that he had originally been “totally against” consolidation, but he said that after listening to the consultants and realizing that the single school could offer different courses, including job training, he feels the single school is the best option for the students and the county as a whole.

He also said that he would like to hear the superintendent’s thoughts.

On a motion from the floor, Superintendent Paul Nichols addressed the group.

“Thank you for the opportunity to get in trouble with my board,” joked Nichols.

Nichols told the supervisors that his job is to make the system work, and that with one school or two, that would be accomplished. He did admit, however, that with a school at either end of the county, programs would have to be split with parts at each school. That, he said, would cause travel time increases and difficulties for some students.

Nichols said that by having all of the resources at one facility, every student in the county would have equal, easy access to all of the areas of study as well as all of the programs available.

Nichols discussed the ongoing efforts to offer classes that will ready students for careers after high school, not just those seeking further study after high school.

Turning to the financial aspects, Nichols said that the school system is attempting to take over maintenance functions. He also told the supervisors that currently, Mecklenburg has four unfilled positions because the county’s education salaries are the second lowest in the state. He said we should be at the middle of the scale at least.

Nichols added that he feels going with the less expensive single school plan would allow monies to go to bringing the county more in line with the rest of the state on teacher pay and being able to attract the teachers the county needs.

Supervisor Andy Hargrove also spoke in favor of the single facility plan.

“We are here for the children. They are our future,” said Hargrove. He added that the mission at hand is to provide them with the best education and opportunities possible, and he feels the best option is the single facility plan.

He noted, however, that costs are rising and the county needs to move now.

“The price is going up every day, and the children are on the losing end,” he said.
Although Brankley and Blalock seemed to want to put the official school board request for funding for two schools to a vote, the group heard from County Attorney Russell Slayton who advised both boards meet to discuss the situation.

After additional discussion, the group elected to take up the matter again at its regularly scheduled meeting on Monday night.