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Buckhorn community vents its frustrations

South Boston News
County supervisor Bill Blalock drew applause by calling Dr. James Thornton the “superintendent who came here from Timbuktu.” / December 15, 2010
With both words and numbers, speakers at Wednesday’s School Board public input session attacked a proposal to close Buckhorn Elementary School at the end of the school year.

As they did last Monday when Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton met with members of the Buckhorn community, parents and pupils touted the strengths of their Distinguished Title I School. They addressed the School Board, urging members not to close their school.

Trustees, supervisors talk facilities

In contrast to Monday’s comments from the audience, which focused on the academic experience of attending the smallest school in the division, the emphasis on Wednesday broadened to include issues of character development and safety concerns.

South Boston News
Two dozen people spoke at a public input session Wednesday on the proposed closing of Buckhorn Elementary.

Some 24 people spoke.

Members of the audience who expressed their feelings in words spoke with passion. One woman cried throughout her six-minute turn at the podium.

Both the word people and the numbers people took advantage of their opportunity to hurl barbs at Thornton, who joined the school system this year.

Thornton: budget goals drive decisions

Thornton is the author of the proposal to disperse Buckhorn students and close the school in the hope of saving almost $1 million to help ease the pain of anticipated budget cuts. Most Buckhorn children would attend South Hill Elementary School. The remainder would go to Chase City, Clarksville, and La Crosse.

In his presentation, which he reprised at the beginning of Wednesday’s session,

Thornton repeated his statements that salaries and construction needs are the drivers behind the budgetary decision. The plan to close Buckhorn was based on the need to help solve budget goals while producing minimum negative impact on class size and on learning opportunities division-wide, he said.

Acknowledging that class size was “a major concern” expressed at the Monday meeting, Thornton showed enrollment projections for all the schools and attempted to assure the audience that South Hill Elementary would not be overwhelmed by the influx of almost 150 Buckhorn students.

He commented that, if the school division chose to reduce staff at all nine schools rather than consolidate elementary schools, class size would increase at every school.

Audience challenges superintendent

The audience did not challenge Thornton’s statement that none of the bus routes would be longer than those currently in use. Several speakers, however, raised issues of safety on long bus trips during which the driver is responsible for both operating the vehicle and watching over its passengers.

Some referred to Thornton’s non-native status while challenging his ability to understand the needs of Mecklenburg County. Others questioned his credentials and his statistics.

One speaker stated that the superintendent is not interested in input and that his actions are not united but dividing the county.

Although the remarks drew applause, School Board chairman Robert Puryear interrupted several speakers to remind them of the protocol he had outlined at the beginning of the meeting: no personal attacks.

Trustee raises questions

School board member Sandra Tanner, the one trustee Thornton didn’t meet with prior to announcing the school consolidation proposal at a special meeting of Buckhorn staff, requested an opportunity to ask him some questions.

She said this was her first opportunity.

Tanner questioned the wisdom of offering end-of-year bonuses as the superintendent has proposed rather than use the money to close next year’s deficit, keeping Buckhorn open and saving jobs.

Unlike members of the audience, she was allowed a brief dialogue with the superintendent. (Board members and school administrators were not permitted to respond to remarks made by parents, staff, students, and a few concerned Mecklenburg County residents who spoke.)

Thornton told Tanner that the administration is seeking a long-term solution to the division’s financial challenges.

He said a number of positions such as math specialist have been funded through the federal stimulus for two years. It would not be a wise use of money for the school division to fund these positions going forward.

“If we fund these positions, we will have the same problem looking us in the eye next year,” he said.

In response to her question about whether any students would be redistricted out of La Crosse Elementary to make room for the three incoming Buckhorn children, he said no one would be redistricted out of La Crosse.

The cause of overcrowding at La Crosse is the attendance there of students who do not live in the county, Thornton said. The school division is evaluating its policy for accepting out-of-county students.

Tanner commented that, while classrooms may not be overcrowded at South Hill Elementary, other facilities such as the cafeteria are. She said students attending the Gifted and Talented Program that is housed at South Hill have to wait until after 1 p.m. to eat lunch due to cafeteria crowding.

Thornton said it has not yet been determined where the GATE program will meet in the coming school year.

Tanner asked what other measures besides closing Buckhorn could be taken to meet the school division’s financial goals. She noted that Nottoway County has cut New Beginnings and Cortez math, two programs he introduced in Mecklenburg.

She added that Cumberland County, where he previously served as superintendent, also has cut new programs.

“When we build a brand new high school are we going to be able to implement programs?” she asked.

“My stance always has been that programs to serve a child will be the last thing to be cut,” he responded.

He said he would cut a math teacher before he would cut programs, including academic programs, band, or athletics — all of which offer opportunities to students.

“We are here to serve the children. We’re not an employment agency,” he said.

Parents speak passionately

“Thornton said Monday night that one person left [Mecklenburg schools] because of money. So what. Let them leave. Teachers at Buckhorn have been here more than 10 years and they’re not leaving,” Buckhorn parent Julie Hamby commented.

“Don’t let the wool be pulled over you eyes,” she exhorted the board. “Don’t be fooled by facts and figures. Keep Buckhorn open. It’s the right thing to do.”

Sharon Jennings, whose son attends Buckhorn, likened the impact of uprooting a child from his school environment to the impact of divorce.

“They [the Buckhorn staff] are part of the family that raises our children,” she said. “Community is the key word: Our schools are built on community.’

Several speakers, including Hart Hudson, hinted that consolidation would foster socialism.

“We can not see massive education,” he said. “They are massively indoctrinated socialistically, not educationally.”

Rhonda Alexander asked: “Will closing Buckhorn help with the shortfall or with new construction? Will the school division suddenly find another $1 million just as it did after the closing of Boydton Elementary?”

She also called attention to the plight of families already struggling to feed and clothe their children.

Supervisor issues warning

Like some of the parents who spoke, local resident and longtime county supervisor Bill Blalock spoke of the concern for struggling families.

Blalock urged the board to put off the closing Buckhorn and the building of new schools for at least a year “so that we who have to come up with the finances will know what you’re planning.”

He said Thornton’s school construction proposals (see related story) would lead to a 50-65 percent increase in taxes.

“I’m not sure anybody in Mecklenburg County can survive under those conditions,” he said.

Blalock drew applause when he referred to Thornton as the “superintendent who came here from Timbuktu.”

Addressing the School Board, he said: “I think you people should control the superintendent. If you let this one keep going the way he’s going, it’s going to be time to get rid of another one.”

Another supervisor, Jim Jennings, cited Buckhorn’s record in producing “productive members of society,” including his own children whose foundation has enabled them to meet their goals.

He questioned the process of going public with the consolidation proposal.

“Why was the proposal not presented in a public meeting?” he asked. “Why was a meeting held at the school two days before the public meeting? That tells everyone it’s a done deal and their input is not needed.”

PTA president urges patience

Buckhorn PTA president Christi Parshall acknowledged that Mecklenburg needs better schools and asserted that the residents wouldn’t be opposed to change if there was “a broad spectrum plan.”

She said Thornton apparently has a $100 million agenda for Mecklenburg to “build a consolidated high school and middle school complex, offer a 3 year salary increase to school employees, and to build larger elementary schools.

“I encourage Dr. Thornton and the school board to address one of the above projects, and proceed with it instead of trying to accomplish four major goals at one time. Offer the community ideas on how to solve our problems, not ways to further complicate them,” she urged.

Parshall noted that Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, continue to increase.

“We are being set up for failure because it is nearly impossible to achieve at great levels when the number of teachers is reduced as well as increasing the student/teacher ratio. Closing Buckhorn will force the student/teacher ratio to increase,” she said.

She asked what the plan is for eliminating the $2.3 million revenue shortfall in the coming fiscal year.

“No one, to my knowledge, has seen a copy of next year’s budget. The shortfalls, the savings, the spending, etc. How can we make responsible decisions without seeing the numbers first? Is our budget so dismal that the only solution is to close a school?

“Closing a school should be a last ditch effort, not the first item recommended. It would be more financially responsible to trim extra programs rather than close down an entire school,” she said.

Julie Hamby, a Buckhorn parent, said staff had been “basically threatened” about speaking at the meeting and told they would be fired if they discussed the proposed consolidation.

Buffy Gill, a teacher, denied that staff had been pressured to keep quiet.

She attempted to move the debate away from a comparison of the virtues of various elementary schools in the division.

“My children attend Chase City, and I’ve been blessed with wonderful experiences,” she said.

Gill said the Buckhorn community is not concerned about the quality of the schools they would be entering, but rather with the children entering schools that are at or near capacity.

She said teachers would forego raises now to keep Buckhorn open.

“When the economy does turn around, we would like to hear talk of raises,” she added.

Others debate numbers

Kent Wise asserted that Thornton’s projections underestimate the number of students in the system, “making the closing of any elementary school impossible.”

C.J. Dean referred to an Excel spreadsheet and said 55 students have not been accounted for in enrollment projections for the coming year.

Dean said a division-wide enrollment projection of 2,218 is based on Thornton’s projection that the Chase City fifth grade would be eliminated because the incoming 5th grade population will decline. Additionally, one pre-k and two kindergarten classes would have to be eliminated if the teaching staff at South Hill Elementary is not increased, he said.

“Pre-K is traditionally in Mecklenburg County has been reserved for the children that have needs,” he said.

“Can we legally deny access to kindergarten age students?”

Quoting statistics from the Virginia Department of Education website, fourth grade parent Marah Michael questioned the safety of county schools where Buckhorn students would attend.

She said the DOE tracks incidents that could affect safety, including weapons offenses, including offenses against fellow students and staff, alcohol and tobacco violations, disorderly behavior and technology offenses. She said she totaled all the incidents for the 2009-10 year and found the following:

n Clarksville, 268 recorded incidents, 1 per 1.7 students;

n South Hill, 236 incidents, 1 per 2.9 students;

n Chase City, 132 incidents, 1 per 3.8 students;

n Buckhorn, 28 incidents, 1 per 9.6 students.

“That tells me Buckhorn has the most respect for teachers and peers as well. Why are not other schools trying to reach the standards set by Buckhorn?” she asked.

Her daughter, Holly, a sixth grade student at Park View Middle School, told the audience she had entered Buckhorn after attending a school with 1,000 students.

The final speaker of the evening was 10-year-old Tristan, a 5th grader at Buckhorn who asked what would become of the great teachers and awesome students if the school is closed. At Buckhorn she received attention from the teachers and found it easier to form friendships with classmates, she said.

“We have the right to say ‘no,’” she asserted.

The sound of applause filled the crowded room.

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