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More talk, less consensus as facilities debate continues

SoVaNow.com / August 31, 2016
What started out Monday night as a Mecklenburg County School Board work session dissolved into a battle between proponents for one countywide school complex and those who want to build separate high school/middle school campuses on west and east ends of the county.

Solidly positioned in the latter group are five trustees who carried the day when rustees voted in July to support Option 4, a $143 million plan that the trustees forwarded to the Board of Supervisors. Option 4 calls for building a new school complex for students in grades six-12 in the western part of Mecklenburg, and construction of a new high school in South Hill to serve students who attend Park View. The existing Park View High School would be renovated to serve as a new middle school.

With supervisors balking at the price tag — they’ve set a limit of $100 million, the projected cost of a consolidated, countywide school — members of the School Board have been casting about for alternatives that could allow for construction of two schools for that amount of money.

By all appearances, the work session moved the trustees no closer to that goal — and may have set back relations among members.

By the end of the evening, the five trustees in favor of two schools split over the best approach to take with supervisors, and Clarksville-area board member Glenn Edwards, arguing in favor of a consolidated school, walked out of the meeting after being accused of injecting race into the discussion.

Throughout the meeting, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols sat with his head and eyes cast downward as tempers flared around him.

A majority of trustees affirmed their desire to move forward with new schools on each end of the county, even as their prescriptions for how to move forward diverged.

“During our last work session, different opinions came up and there was a discussion among board members of a hybrid to Option 4,” said Board Chairman Dale Sturdifen as he started the discussion.

A “hydrid” plan is required to bring the cost of Option 4 down to around the $100 million that supervisors have said will be available for construction, and trustees continued to toss out ideas Monday night on what that hybrid proposal should entail.

Wanda Bailey, the first to speak, thanked Nichols for “bringing in an architect” — Randy Holmes with the Richmond firm of Glavé & Holmes Architecture, who appeared at a School Board meeting earlier in the month. “He helped us look at things and we learned some things and that meeting was not in vain,” said Bailey.

Based on her interpretation of Holmes’ comments, Bailey argued that dual-complex Option 4 can be built for “considerably less” than the $143 million suggested by Crabtree Rohrbaugh, the design and consulting firm employed by the county to study new school facilities. Bailey said she came to that view after hearing Holmes suggest less costly numbers for the average square foot per student to determine the size of the building, and the average square foot cost.

“It looks like the Board of Supervisors will support $100 million for new schools,” she said.

Bailey said she believes Option 4 can be completed for $100 million even if it means doing the work in phases, with less than a full renovation of Park View High School.

Brent Richey, echoing Bailey’s comments, said he used the “lowest quartile” for coming up with an acceptable per pupil square footage for new schools. Multiplied those numbers by the average cost for construction, Richey said he came up with what he believes is a reasonable cost to build a new high school/middle school complex for the western end of the county — $49 million. By the same calculus, it would take $29 million to build a new high school adjacent to the existing Park View High, he said. “That leaves $22 million to renovate Park View High into a middle school.”

When asked by Sturdifen whether those numbers included land purchase or infrastructure costs, Richey shot back: “I’m just trying to say Option 4 is a viable option. I don’t have all the numbers.” He then launched into a commentary on how the process has been backwards: First, a construction budget should be set, and then the architect or steering committee should have come up with options that fit within the budget.

Sturdifen, who voted with the majority in July to preserve the option of bringing the vote back up at a later date, countered that he is not comfortable building a school that only meets minimum standards.

“When we are doing something of this magnitude, do we want to be in the middle, on the high or on the lower third?” Sturdifen asked. “If we have an opportunity, is it not a better option to try to bring the cost down with a single impactful new facility that we can build through consolidation — and have more space that still comes in at the price point or two smaller schools?”

Kenneth Johnson, who has said little publicly during the debate on school facilities, explained Monday why he is unwilling to support separate school complexes. Point by point, Johnson addressed objections to a single school complex raised by those who favor separate facilities on each end of the county.

“I’ve been listening to a whole lot of stuff. I have grandkids on that [east] end of the county, and so I’m a whole county representative,” said Johnson, whose District 8 stretches along the western edge of Mecklenburg County from Lunenburg County to the North, to just north of Buggs Island Lake on the south end, and encompassing parts of Chase City. “When we get to talking about Park View High School with its asbestos, I ask, why would I want to give second-hand stuff to my grandkids and all your kids? So why not one school?”

Suggesting that there was no guarantee that two schools complexes could be built for $100 million, Johnson continued, “Figures can be shifted around to say whatever you want. Often contractors do cost-plus [a method for fixing the price paid to contractors]. So you can start out with $100,000 house and by the time it’s done you’re up to $200,000.”

Johnson suggested that the discussion about education had gotten lost in the debate. Instead of educational quality, he said, some parents are more worried about drive times and whether their kids would be able to play sports. “The parents say my kids won’t be able to play sports because they’re not good enough. Someone else will take their spot. Well, your kid took somebody’s place. Your kid outdid somebody. I taught my kids when I was raising them, you give it all you’ve got, and if you’re good at it, it will show.”

On the subject of travel times to a centrally-located high school/middle school, Johnson said, “Yes, kids will have to drive further. On any given Friday night these kids are driving to Richmond or Durham.”

If gangs pose a problem — another objection raised by parents who are concerned about the size of a single school — “we will have to deal with it, if we have two or one school,” Johnson said. He was equally dismissive of the claim that shutting down Park View High and Middle would inflict a business drain on South Hill. “Those kids [who live on the east end] will come to school and go back to their territory and shop in their home territory.”

Johnson concluded by telling trustees that the two-school option will only satisfy a few, and that the status quo needs to go. “There’s much more you can offer these kids with one school.”

As the debate continued, and tempers flared, it became evident from the conversation that there was no agreement on a path forward among the five trustees who favor two schools. South Hill trustee Gavin Honeycutt called for construction of a new dual school complex on the west end of the county, a new high school on the east end, and a full renovation of Park View High to serve as the middle school, which he said could be done for $100 million.

Bailey proposed a more incremental approach — with a new complex on the west end, a new high school on the east end, and minor renovations, initially, to Park View High as it is converted to a middle school.

Richey expressed support for reducing the size of the schools to the minimum acceptable range, to reduce building costs, while Rob Campbell said he would consider supporting a single consolidated complex if it was built on the Park View site, which would require the purchase of an additional 60-acre tract abutting the existing property.

Lindell Palmer, who voted for two-school Option 4 in July, was silent during the discussion.

On several occasions throughout the meeting, Honeycutt asked if he could rescind the motion that he made with the 6-3 vote to adopt Option 4 — which asked the Board of Supervisors to fund the $143 million price tag. Richey was emphatic that the School Board had set no cost estimate with the July vote, as that is the responsibility of the Board of Supervisors, he said. He and Bailey refused to agree to revisit the original motion.

Sturdifen agreed with Honeycutt, however, saying the vote taken by trustees asked the Board of Supervisors to fund Option 4 at a cost of $143 million. That opinion drew a rebuke by Richey and Bailey, who argued that once Supervisors set a budget — $100 million or otherwise — the School Board could modify its building plans to meet that budget.

One way to meet the supervisors’ directive, they suggested, would be to build two schools of unequal size, reflecting a disparity of population between the eastern and western ends of the county.

At this point Edwards spoke up, saying the idea of separate but equal was unequal — a message he said was delivered to him by an African American constituent. Similar remarks were made at two public meetings hosted earlier this summer by the citizens steering committee on school facilities. Ann Miller made the point when she spoke at a public forum in South Hill, and Lisa Burnett offered a similar comment at a meeting in Clarksville.

Visibly angered by Edwards’ remarks, Richey accused Edwards of suggesting that he was racist for favoring two schools. In response, Edwards walked out of the meeting.

Dora Garner, who has allied with Edwards on the school facilities debate as a fellow west-end trustee, loudly proclaimed her disgust with people on the east end of Mecklenburg County who “whine” about what was best for them, without thought to those on the west end.

“I don’t hear people from the west end complaining when their kids have to travel to Park View to take a class,” said Garner. “I don’t hear people on the West End complaining that their kids have to travel 1 hour and 35 minutes on the bus each way.”

Shortly after Garner spoke, the School Board voted to affirm its support for Option 4, calling for separate high school/middle school complexes, east and west.

Campbell said he hoped to end the meeting on a positive note.

“Everybody is talking about the shape the schools are in now. I want to commend Mr. [Brian] Dalton [head of maintenance] who is doing a fabulous job keeping on top of things.” It is only because of Dalton’s work repairing existing schools that the trustees can take the time to debate the best option for new facilities, Campbell said.

In other business at the work session, Nichols said he’d received a petition and a request from a number of students and parents asking him to form a committee to look into the provisions and implementation of the school dress code. They want “to have another pair of eyes to look at the dress code and at whether there is the same type of enforcement going on at all of the schools,” Nichols explained.

Sturdifen thanked the superintendent for bringing the matter to the attention of trustees and said, “We as a board will let you work through that process and will look for an update at the September board meeting.”



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