Supes, schools pitch construction compromises
Members of the board of supervisors and school board of Mecklenburg County came together to meet as the Joint Education Committee on Thursday. With county budget preparations under way, the school board trustees were given homework to complete ahead of the next committee meeting, which was pushed up to the beginning of March.
The supervisors asked the school board to consider the following three items: Expanding the current energy performance contract assessment ongoing at the county’s elementary schools to include upgrading and/or replacing the plumbing, water and sewer systems; the amount of funding needed to give school employees a 3 percent raise across the board; and potential compromises that could end the standoff between the two boards over secondary school construction and allow the county to move forward with renovating and/or replacing its middle and high schools.
After the three members of each board who sit on the committee — supervisors Claudia Lundy, who is committee chair, Glanzy Spain and David Brankley, and school board members Glenn Edwards, Wanda Bailey and Lindell Palmer — discussed elementary school renovations and school employee pay raises, Brankley made a plea to discuss the secondary school construction issue.
“We need to come to something here, and we need to do it real soon,” Brankley said. “We’ve got to start this conversation somewhere. We can’t walk out of here today and not even talk about it. We’re not going to make everybody happy, but we need to do this. We’ve got to step up here now.”
While the board of supervisors wants to allocate up to $100 million to build a centrally located, consolidated middle and high school, the school board has a 5-4 majority in favor of building a new Park View High School at its current location in South Hill while renovating the current Park View High School into a middle school and constructing new Bluestone schools for the west end students in a new location.
Lundy asked, “We want to see, can you come to a compromise… for the county and for the children and for our future?”
Bailey said the school board is confident the separate middle/high school systems could be continued on the east and west ends of the county within the $100 million price tag. She based her assertion on current and recently completed school construction projects around Virginia as well as an unsolicited bid the school board received.
Bailey framed her comments around creating the opportunity to create infrastructure that can help the county grow.
“I want us to create something that is going to serve us for the next 50 years and accommodate increase when that happens,” she said. “If the increase doesn’t happen, consolidation is always possible down the road. But we’re at this crossroads right now where we’re going to build something new, I want it to be something that we can grow into and something that can serve everybody’s needs.
“I would like the opportunity to investigate more the plan the school board has endorsed.”
Lundy pitched a potential compromise in which a consolidated school would be constructed closer to the eastern end of the county than in the geographic center of the county.
While Brankley noted the center of the county geographically is just east of the town of Boydton, Bailey said in terms of the county students the school system serves, the center of the county is near the intersection of Union Level Road and Busy Bee Road outside of South Hill.
Brankley spoke against building a consolidated secondary school more east than west, saying the overall cost of the project would increase when the county buys the land and has to extend sewer lines from Boydton further east. He also expressed concern about increasing travel times for western students.
“Are two kids on the other side of Bracey more important than one kid on the Charlotte County line?” he asked.
Brankley said he thought the compromise would be that the school board would agree to consolidate the secondary schools with the understanding that more funding could go toward the educational programming inside the new school.
“If we can build two within that $100 million, let’s get those people (who provided the unsolicited bid) in here, maybe we can build one for $70 million, and that’s $30 million more that somewhere along the line we can incorporate into that school,” Brankley said.
Palmer advocated for compromise and said, “I think when you compromise, you sometimes have to give a little bit on each side.”
Edwards said, “If we use those statistics that were just put out there, right now we’d have a big school in Chase City, because that’s where the population used to be.”
Edwards proposed a compromise that involved constructing a centrally located consolidated high school while renovating the current Park View High School into a middle school and constructing a new Bluestone Middle School in a new location to serve the west end middle school students.
“That’ll leave your younger children at a South Hill location, we’ll still have a central high school, and we’ll build a middle school to house the western end of the county students and get them out of Bluestone,” he said.
Bailey noted the decision on this issue is supposed to be the school board’s to make.
“Yes, we can’t do anything unless you pay for it, and I get that,” she said. “But we have a school board that’s been elected to make these very important decisions based on a lot of information, what our public wants and what we feel is educationally best.”
Brankley answered, “We as a board of supervisors, we have to look more than a mile down the road. We have to look 10 miles down the road at what’s coming. We’ve got a whole lot to look at down the road as far as money.”
School leaders have privately expressed pessimism that the current board of supervisors is willing to consider a compromise that involves continuing with two secondary school systems that serve each end of the county.
However, Palmer ended the Joint Education Committee meeting by saying, “I think we have made a step tonight, and I would like to see us follow up on what we have discussed and see where we can go from here.”
The next meeting of the Joint Education Committee will be held the week of March 6.
The supervisors in attendance spoke repeatedly of an Agriculture Committee presentation they’d heard the night before that outlined the agriculture program in place at Randolph-Henry High School in neighboring Charlotte County.
Spain said the program involves working farms raising trees, vegetables, cattle, fish and honey, etc., that sells the products to market.
“We all were sitting there in awe of what they had,” Brankley said. “The ag teachers from Bluestone and Park View were there, and I felt sorry for them, because they didn’t have the tools.”
Lundy added, “We are way, way behind. We’re like horse and buggy education compared to some of them. We can do more.”
Palmer answered, “That school didn’t start doing all of this yesterday. That’s something they have been working on for years. When we compare what is going on with different schools, we have to compare everything, not just one part.”
Mecklenburg County Public Schools offers programs such as advanced manufacturing, high performance technology and coding, among others. The school system also recently heard a presentation on its one-to-one device initiative, which seeks to put an electronic device in every student’s hands. In his first year in the position, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols joined the school board in initiating an increased focus on Career and Technical Education (CTE) programming.
Bailey called the discrepancy in the agriculture programs of the two counties a funding issue and urged the supervisors to compare per pupil funding in Mecklenburg and Charlotte counties.
Including federal, state and local funding in 2015, Charlotte County funded 1,946 students at a rate of $11,848 per student, while Mecklenburg County funded 4,545 students at a rate of $9,836 per student.
Nichols arrived at the Joint Education Committee fresh off meeting with state leaders in Richmond.
He said he heard that the economy of Virginia is dependent on schools better engaging students and helping them understand in what subjects jobs are located and what it takes to get a job in those areas.
Nichols has been putting in place a “high school redesign” program that emphasizes career literacy.
“The secretary of education said to me today, you are farther along than anybody else in the state in many aspects,” Nichols said. “We could be well ahead of most of the rest of the state if we could move ahead with infrastructure ideas that match the plans that we are looking at moving ahead with.”
To move Mecklenburg County Public Schools out of the bottom in regards to employee pay in the region, Lundy suggested the board of supervisors will consider a 3 percent across-the-board pay increase for school employees in the upcoming budget cycle.
“We may not get them a raise to put them at the top, but we can have the medium maybe,” she said. “I know they deserve more, but we’ve got to think about other things we’ve got to finance also.”
Spain added, “All at once you can’t be top of Region 8, but you can make a stride.”
Palmer said, “Recruiting teachers is a problem throughout the nation, not just here in Mecklenburg, so everything we can do here at this level to help with that I think is outstanding.”
He asked if the pay increase could be more.
While South Hill Elementary School is a fairly newer school, only about a decade old, the other three elementary schools serving the county, Clarksville, Chase City and LaCrosse, are more than 50 years old.
Trane is currently performing an energy efficiency audit for a potential energy performance contract to upgrade the air circulation, heating and air conditioning systems and/or windows at the elementary schools, etc., but Lundy said the supervisors want to consider a more comprehensive renovation plan that also includes water, sewer and plumbing.
County administrator Wayne Carter noted the sewer and water lines at the three older elementary schools are more than 50 years old.
“Either you’ve got to look at it from a holistic, doing the whole process, or you’re going to be piecemealing,” he said.
Brankley added, “We don’t want to get into a situation here that we sit and don’t do nothing on anything for a couple years and then we’re back to where the old boards were that we’ve got all this stuff staring us down.”
Bailey thanked the supervisors for their proactive approach to the elementary schools and reminded, “We’re going to get a significant plan together (for the elementary schools), but I want to say that it’s still the priority for our board to be looking at secondary schools. We don’t want to forget that conversation.”
Lundy answered, “We have not forgotten that, but since we are in limbo and we’re not moving forward, our board wanted to do something for the schools that needs to be done at this particular point in time.”
Carter said, “We’re going to be in those elementary schools for a very long time, that’s the reality, and they can’t wait 30 more years.”