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Smallest school, biggest turnout

South Boston News
More than 100 people turned out Tuesday to ask the School Board to keep Clays Mill in operation. Below right, letters by students greeted guests at the public meeting.
SoVaNow.com / October 21, 2021


Halifax County’s smallest school produced the largest crowd yet to attend one of the School Board’s public meetings on elementary school consolidation as more than 100 people showed up Tuesday night to advocate for Clays Mill Elementary.

Clays Mill Principal David Duffer opened the meeting by describing the hard work Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg and School Board members have put into the task of improving teacher compensation and upgrading school facilities. As part of their plans, the School Board voted in September to build a new high school. Another priority, raising teacher pay, hinges in part on recouping some $2.5 million in annual savings from closing three elementary schools — Meadville, Sinai and Clays Mill.

“Tonight we are here to listen to things we can do to help our elementary schools,” said Duffer.

With an enrollment of 157 students, Clays Mill is operating at around 30 percent capacity. The school was built in the 1960s and has the capacity to educate 508 students. In coming years, said Lineburg, the school will require renovations, a significant expense that will weigh on other parts of the budget if Halifax County Public Schools keeps its current footprint of seven elementary schools, five located in the northern part of the county.

Speakers at Tuesday night’s meeting put forward a different case — that small schools are better for the education of the county’s youngest students.

Jimmy Clay, a Clays Mill parent and member of the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office, said he was reminded of the public hearing that night as he picked his kid up from school. “When I arrived to the pick-up line, there was a student standing with the school mascot, the Cougar. The kid held a sign that read ‘our meeting is tonight’, this is their meeting. At some point [let’s] take into consideration what they said — it’s about them. Their situation is now and we have to look after our kids.”

Clay shared that the school is remarkable and in better shape than it was when he attended in 1978.

In his career in law enforcement, Clay said he has seen a lot of schools, and “this is the best run school I’ve ever seen.” He praised Clays Mill Elementary as being in better shape now that when he attended in 1978.

Clay said he agrees the high school must be fixed, citing its structural and security deficiencies, but he encouraged the School Board to find another way that does not involve closing elementary schools.

“Deep in my heart, you can do it,” said Clay.

Students and teachers pleaded with members of the School Board to keep Clays Mill open. “We are a family here, Clays Mill is special,” said Angel, a fifth grade student. A boy who stepped up to the microphone and gave his first name, Cale, said “there is more one-on-one time and a lot of my memories were made here” at Clays Mill.

“Please keep this school open, not for me, not for the money, but for the people who work here and learn here,” he said.

Teachers also spoke up in support of Clays Mill, noting the importance of small class sizes, especially after the learning loss that occurred during the pandemic. Small class sizes allow teachers the opportunity to teach to small groupings of students who are at the same reading level.

“Four mega schools will be catastrophic for years to come,” said Natalie Long, who joined HCPS after teaching for 11 years in Pittsylvania County. The family moved to Halifax County for their son to be educated in county schools, and Long took a pay cut to teach here. At first, she wasn’t thrilled with that idea, but now she isn’t burnt out by her job and feels about to give her heart to each student due to the small class sizes at Clays Mill.

“Research tells us, small group instruction drives academic success for our youth,” said Long.

Megan Grant moved to Clays Mill this year from South Boston Elementary, where she taught 12 years. When she started at SBES, Grant taught kindergarten with 24 students in her class. She was one of seven kindergarten teachers at the time.

Every year, there was a relocation of staff at SBES, along with other adjustments made: finding space for special education classrooms, moving the nurse’s station around to serve everyone in the facility, and other changes that made teaching there hard.

“There was a switching of rooms to facilitate the ever-growing size,” said Grant.

Over the span of years, she became overworked, stressed-out, and would come home crying because she felt she could not give her students what they needed.

Grant said she was sad to leave South Boston Elementary, with the hundreds of students she taught there and friends left behind, but she could tell immediately that Clays Mill was a good environment for her twin sons, fifth graders, who attend school there.

At Clays Mill, there’s more time for instruction and less time needed for transitioning students. At SBES, classes wait for the cafeteria to be cleared for the next group of students to eat lunch.

“There were things that were of no one’s fault, just the size of the building and the number of the children in the building alone,” said Grant.

Students at Clays Mill get to go outside and play on the grass every day. They get more time during P.E. because there is no delay in switching classes.

“Every day, my boys’ eyes are filled with joy,” said Grant.

Vickie Powell, another Clays Mill teacher, drives some 80 miles to work from her home in Mecklenburg County. Powell said she can make more money teaching in Mecklenburg County schools, but to her it’s not about the money.

“If I’m going to teach, I want to teach here — this is where my heart is,” said Powell.

When Powell began teaching fourth grade at a different school, there were three teachers for 81 students — 27 fourth graders for each teacher. Powell said she spoke to the school board to convey how hard it was to keep every student on track in their classes.

“If you close these schools, you are hurting the county because this is your future. I implore you to see children and not dollar signs,” said Powell.

Matt Gunn, a long-time parent at Clays Mill, described his involvement in the tight-knit school community over the years. He has helped to lead field trips, taken part in career days, worked on PTO fundraisers to purchase school equipment, and worked with four different principals since 2001.

“I could be the tour guide to any destination these teachers choose for a field trip,” said Gunn. “Welcome to my school.”

Gunn said he supported a new high school facility for the county but urged school trustees to keep elementary schools open. He criticized the idea of closing Clays Mill and reassigning its students to Scottsburg Elementary which, under Lineburg’s plan, would be renovated and expanded to handle an influx of newcomers.

The current Scottsburg facility sits on landlocked property, Gunn said, and any expansion of the building would mean having to build on top of the school’s baseball field. He brought up another drawback with consolidation: longer school bus rides for the county’s youngest students.

“Build the high school if you want, but leave these elementary schools alone,” said Gunn.

Field Cross, another speaker, laid into School Board members for proposing to close elementary schools after county voters went to the polls in 2019 and overwhelmingly passed the 1-cent sales tax to pay for school facility improvements.

“I thought that was a wonderful idea, why wouldn’t we allow other people who don’t live in our community to pay for our stuff?” said Cross, referring to the local option sales tax. “It seems like the best idea in the world, at the time it did.

Now with a plan on the table to close Clays Mill, “as a community it feels like we were lied to now or then, because we are not getting the opportunity to see where this tax money is going because the moment you got the chance you tried to close schools.

“I strive to teach my children integrity,” said Cross, accusing school trustees of a lack of integrity. He said it was wrong for a majority on the board to vote to build a new high school after ED-6 trustee Todd Moser, who voiced opposition to building a new high school, resigned his seat.

“This is directed to the school board — did you guys use integrity when you couldn’t wait to vote after Mr. Moser put in his resignation? My guess would be no. You guys knew Mr. Moser was against voting to close the schools … You four found the opportunity to have a vote to get this ball moving in the direction you wanted.

“You guys did not allow either districts to have their voices heard. You started a process you hoped would be unstoppable. It seems to me, though, that these communities you represent are telling you differently,” said Cross.

“You guys should be ashamed of the way you represented this community,” he added.

Offering a different perspective, Jeff Francisco, who represents the Clays Mill area on the Board of Supervisors, said he appreciates the difficulty of the math that is driving the School Board’s deliberations.

Francisco brought up the question he said everyone has failed to ask — what is the alternative to saving $2.5 million annually in the school budget. Francisco, who is not running for re-election, said it is imperative that Halifax County raise teacher pay, a move that requires two things under Lineburg’s proposal: a 2-cent real estate tax increase, and savings from elementary school consolidation. With four elementary schools in operation — Cluster Springs, South Boston, Scottsburg, and Sydnor Jennings — the school division will save $2,307,500 in annual personnel costs, and recoup $262,248 in operational savings from having fewer facilities.

“What do you plan on doing with the two and a half million dollars?” asked Francisco.

Francisco said he has been adamant that teacher compensation must be fixed throughout his tenure on the Board of Supervisors. “I have been on their [the School Board’s] case about a teacher compensation adjustment, and what I mean is that 25-year teachers should be making more, way more —the scale should be right.”

The $2.5 million savings is going to correct the salary scale for all teachers in the county, Francisco said, citing the information provided by Lineburg and reviewed by County Administrator Scott Simpson. He said the teacher salary compensation plan is more important to the Board of Supervisors than any school facility.

“We are losing teachers, teachers driving here from far away, I think this money we can save will be used to correct teachers’ salaries,” said Francisco.

The only other realistic option is to raise taxes, and “I know when you mention raising taxes, people want to shoot you, kill you, falling in the floor, heart attack, the whole nine yards.” To come up with $2.5 million, Halifax County would have to raise the real estate tax by another 7 or 8 cents, on top of the 2-cent hike sought by Lineburg and the School Board.

Francisco said he, too, believes in the benefits of small schools. As for an idea that is often floated — returning sixth and seventh grade students to the county’s below-capacity small elementary schools, he said that idea wouldn’t work because of the pod-style construction of South Boston and Cluster Springs Elementary Schools.

“So what I’m hearing tonight, is that people would rather raise their taxes a little bit and keep Clays Mill open than to keep taxes low and close Clays Mill — those are the two options,” said Francisco.

The School Board representative for ED-2, Roy Keith Lloyd, did not speak at the meeting, in keeping with meeting protocol. None of the other trustees spoke, either, but Kathy Fraley and Keith McDowell, who have opposed a new high school, gave speakers at standing ovation at Tuesday’s meeting.

Writing on Facebook afterwards, Lloyd thanked speakers at Tuesday’s meeting and said he “would like to especially thank those who voiced their opinion respectfully. I attended Clays Mill. I LOVE that school.

“If you ask me (& likely any other board member) we would love not to close any school. But we were tasked with coming up with funding options. This was just one option. No decision has been made … Presently, to fix [the teacher] salary scale, the options are to reduce the number of elementary schools OR raise property taxes 8 cents and keep them all open. That’s not my opinion nor my desire. Those are just the numbers.”

Lineburg, offering an overview of the school plan, talked about the tradeoffs involved and also the benefits. Clays Mill, Meadville, and Sinai were constructed in the 1960s and are in need of major renovations. Facility needs at Clays Mill include new HVAC systems, window replacements, electrical and plumbing upgrades, and making the school fully ADA-accessible.

“We have five aging buildings, all built in the sixties, without significant renovations. They are in good shape, but updates need to occur,” said Lineburg

With the four-school model, elementary education services will be expanded for students. Citing one example, Lineburg noted that teachers who now travel from school to school teaching subjects such as music and art could be permanent fixtures on the faculty at each school.

“There would be full-time positions for art, music, counselors, speech and hearing,” said Lineburg.

The average class size after rezoning will be approximately 19-20 students per class.

There are two more school consolidation public meetings on the School Board calendar: On Thursday, Oct. 21 at Scottsburg and on Thursday, Oct. 28 at Meadville. Both meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.

The School Board will hold its next monthly meeting on Monday, Nov. 8, and the School Board and Board of Supervisors are scheduled to meet in late November to reach decisions on the high school, school employee compensation plan and elementary school consolidation.



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Comments

I went to clays mill in 68, so it was built in the 60's I live in a house built in 1890. The 1% was suppose to take care of that. The sb can do all this without having to raise taxes! Especially since all you liberals voted for JB inflation has taken over. Clays Mill should not be closed. If you are determined to give teachers a raise do it in several year increments not all at once. No jeff we don't want a tax increase. You on the Bos need to cut other areas.

Comments

The issue of the schools is being presented without one big factor: what if they scrap the idea of a new high school and remodel instead? The whole community wasn't even represented when that vote was made last month. Plus, the community doesn't want the new HS at the present cost. It means taxes will be raised .12-.14 cents/$100, some teachers and staff will lose their jobs, and community schools will close.

Comments

Has nobody looked at the economic situation we are in right now.! A hell of a time to want to borrow $200,000,000, to build a unneeded school. Gas will likely be upwards of &5 by Christmas. Groceries are up about 40%. Building supplies up a third. Labor highest in history. Halifax is always on the wrong timing on everything. What about the new hemp factory? How about the Founders College? How about the Daystrom remodel for the mysterious “ Company X!!” Tobio, the tobacco being raised fir meds? Can anybody remember the history. If you can’t, you’re doomed to repeat it. Good luck is all I can say.

Comments

Sounds like they need to move some grades back to the elementary schools if they have all this unused space in the elementary schools! They used to have 7th grade in the elementary schools and 8-9 at the middle school and the high school was only 10-12. This would reduce the number of grades at the high school and allow them to remodel it. Why spend all the money on 1 new school, spread the money around and upgrade all the schools.


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