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School plan goes public at Sydnor Jennings meeting

South Boston News
A crowd of some 40 citizens turned out for the Tuesday night public meeting at Sydnor Jennings Elementary.
SoVaNow.com / October 07, 2021

The Halifax County School Board on Tuesday held the first of five community meetings to get public feedback on the possible consolidation of elementary schools in the northern part of the county, with Tuesday night’s meeting taking place at Sydnor Jennings Elementary in the Nathalie area.

A crowd of some 40 people showed up for the discussion, in addition to five of seven school board trustees and other county officials, including members of the board of supervisors.

The topic of consolidation drew comments from a handful of people — including a teacher at Sydnor Jennings, Traci McKinney, who voiced concerns over the consolidation plans as both an educator and a parent of four children in the system, including a son who attends Sydnor Jennings.

“I like a small classroom size. I know he is being watched more closely and the teacher knows him on a personal level,” said McKinney.

Sydnor Jennings and Scottsburg elementary are slated to remain open under all versions of the consolidation plan for Halifax County elementary schools, which is tied to two other top priorities of the school board: raising employee pay and replacing the HCHS facility. Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg developed a multi-pronged proposal to build a new high school and make teacher pay in Halifax County tops in the Southside Virginia region — goals that rely heavily on savings that could be achieved by closing elementary schools.

The greatest cost savings would come from reducing the current number of elementary schools from seven to four, leaving Sydnor Jennings, Scottsburg and the newest schools in South Boston and Cluster Springs in operation. Clays Mill, Meadville and Sinai elementaries would close. An alternative consolidation proposal calls for building a new school to replace Meadville and Sinai and shuttering Clays Mill, the smallest of the county’s schools with some 130 students.

McKinney and others at the Tuesday night meeting questioned the wisdom of having the county’s youngest students attend bigger schools, although with consolidation, Sydnor Jennings and Scottsburg would have significantly lower enrollments than South Boston and Cluster Springs.

“As a teacher, I’m in the trenches every day teaching fifth grade math and science, that sometimes is a tough thing. I know the gap [in student learning loss] that’s come from covid, I know the challenges that are every day,” said McKinney.

“I get it, something has to be done, but the more we consolidate, there will be larger class sizes that will create more struggle for the teachers with classroom management,” said McKinney.

She added that “a lot of things look really well [on paper], when you put your home budget on paper it looks good, but sometimes life happens and sometimes your budget doesn’t quite match life,” said McKinney.

Her comments and others followed a 45-minute slideshow presentation by Lineburg, laying out the rationale for consolidation. Elementary schools in the northern part of the county operate out of the oldest facilities, posing significant renovation challenges in the near future. Northern Halifax County elementary schools also have the smallest student enrollments.

“Our population is like a spider web, highly concentrated in the center [of the county] and then it spreads out,” said Lineburg. Halifax County Middle School and Halifax County High School are at the center of that web, he added.

Sydnor Jennings Elementary had an enrollment of 185 students in the 2020-21 school year, down from 208 pupils the previous year due to the pandemic and distance learning. At that level, the school is operating at 38 percent capacity, Lineburg said. Sydnor Jennings has the capacity to accommodate 544 students.

Sydnor Jennings and Scottsburg Elementary would each be renovated and expanded with any decision to shutter Clays Mill, Meadville and Scottsburg and reassign students to the schools that remain open.

“Every zone will be impacted and the transportation can be pulled off,” said Lineburg. “We are all love our little neighborhood school — I get that,” he added, before asking audience members to consider the benefits of new and renovated facilities at every level of a child’s education.

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), under its Standards of Quality and Pre-K guidelines, deems that instructional capacity for a pre-K classroom setting is 18 students per class, while K-3 grades can be served by classrooms of up to 22 students, and 24 students for grades 4 and 5. Average class sizes would range from 18 to 20 students, said Lineburg.

Renovated schools would have a greater ability to provide programs in art, music and other subjects, with better libraries, gymnasiums and computer labs. Two of the county’s elementary schools, Sinai and Meadville, have no gymnasiums.

Most of the savings from shuttered schools would come from workforce reductions, which would mostly be achieved through attrition, although Lineburg’s proposal does call for eliminating some 10 positions and offer early retirement incentives to the division’s most experienced and highest-paid teachers.

“The consideration for consolidating schools is driven by personnel challenges, operational cost, and savings,” said Lineburg, urging audience members to look beyond their affection for neighborhood schools to weigh the needs of the division as a whole.

Phyllis Smith, an audience member and former trustee, questioned whether Lineburg has thought out all the challenges of expanding Sydnor Jennings to take in students from shuttered schools.

“How many acres are available for the new addition? There needs to be 10 acres per 100 students, with an additional acre for construction equipment,” said Smith.

Bringing up the sharp drop in county SOL test scores last year, when students largely were stuck at home for remote learning, Smith asked how school consolidation will impact student learning — or if it’s just a move to save money.

Betty Jo Dawson, another speaker, suggested moving grades 6 and 7 back to the elementary schools as an alternative to consolidation. Dawson expressed disappointment there were not more people at Tuesday’s meeting and that not all school board members were present. Two trustees were absent from the meeting, Roy Keith Lloyd (ED-2) and Walter Potts (ED-8).

Amanda Hodnett, a retired school bus driver who worked for Halifax County Public Schools for some 30 years, gave the trustees an earful with criticism of long bus rides for students, lack of discipline and vandalism of high school bathroom facilities, and lack of security at football games.

“I know what the students have to go through riding the bus,” said Hodnett, speaking loudly. Students and schools “need to stay in the community where people know each other and work together.

“As far as that high school goes over there, there is nothing wrong with that high school — that structure is sound, the problem is there is no discipline or consequences,” said Hodnett.

She offered sharp criticism of Lineburg, local media for playing up the physical conditions of the high school, and school maintenance personnel and HCHS Principal Michael Lewis for allowing the building to fall into disrepair.

“It’s time for people to stand up, there ain’t nothing wrong with that school that maintenance won’t do — and as I’ve said, I’m tired of looking at it on the television and in the newspaper pictures of it.”

“We got ripped off with courthouse and we cannot afford it [a new high school],” said Hodnett.

Without better discipline at the high school, a new building will quickly run into the same problems HCHS has now. “Do you want to build something new and they get in there and tear it all to pieces?”

She said Lineburg came to Halifax County with an agenda to build a new high school and the September meeting of the school board should be nullified since the board’s vote to build a new high school came on the heels of the resignation by vice chairman Todd Moser, a past critic of building a new high school.

Among the attendees at Tuesday’s meeting were county supervisors Ricky Short (ED-1) and Dean Throckmorton (ED-5), as well as Lacey Shotwell, a candidate for School Board in ED-6 and Town of Halifax Council member Jack Dunavant.

The next public meeting on school consolidation will be held Tuesday, at Sinai Elementary School, followed by meetings the next Tuesday, Oct. 19 at Clays Mill Elementary and Thursday, Oct. 21 at Scottsburg Elementary. The meetings will conclude on Thursday, Oct. 28 at Meadville Elementary School. All meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.



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Comments

I really think they should move the 6th and 7th grades back to the elementary schools and then move grades from the high school back to the middle school or 8-12 at the middle school while they remodel and rebuild the high school. When I was in school, elementary school went thru the 7th grade. It was a big step to go to middle school and get introduced to all the kids from all over the county and some of the issues that happened from it, longer bus rides, etc. 6th and 7th graders are not as mature and prepared for that jump. Utilize the smaller elementary schools more and spend money remodeling and updating all the schools instead of spending all the money on just a new high school. My two cents worth.

Comments

EXACTLY……NO DISCIPLINE AT THE HIGH SCHOOL. NO REPAIRS BEING DONE AT THE HIGH SCHOOL. Back in the seventies if 1800+ students could crowd in the high school for classes and near 2000 could crowd in the bleachers and stage for a basketball game, with no fights or weapons,then venable, clark, starnes, Wilson and furches were doing a great job. NOW, NOT SO MUCH with the people in charge. A new building will not change that. But, the high school does need a lot or repairs just because of nothing being done in the last 30 years. We do owe the kids atleast that.

Comments

Finally some people are saying what I have been saying. K-7 should be in elementary school, k-4 in one building and 5-7 in one, 8-9 at a middle or jr high and 10-12 at the high school. It was a fad that came up with the middle school concept. I can see remodeling but no new school!

Comments

Thank you Halifax Co for the continued comic relief. Just so you know, you are laughed at all over the state and moving from there was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Citizens do not want taxes to increase, but they also don't want to consider cost saving moves, but still want their school buildings to be safe and renovated and better teacher salaries to attract educators. People are moving out of the area and younger people have no desire to return. There are two options. Change your thinking and allow advancement to happen or remain stubborn and watch the county wither away.


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