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Opinion

Set the stage

SoVaNow.com / January 25, 2017
It’s been awhile since anyone lit this place up. Somebody hand me a match:

In the wake of last week’s vote by the Mecklenburg County School Board to build a consolidated high school-middle school complex to replace the existing Bluestones and Park Views, the question obviously becomes: Will this really happen? With the struggle to get the School Board and Board of Supervisors in alignment now apparently over — albeit by the most tenuous of margins among trustees, 5-4 — the stage appears to be set for the biggest change to county schools since racial integration.

As with any massive overhaul, however, things can always go south. The School Board’s flip vote in favor of a single countywide complex for students in grades 6-12 — after a five-member bloc held out for two schools for so long — is apparently predicated on the condition that the new school lean in the direction of South Hill. But by how much? Do county or school officials have a specific site in mind? And will shifting the location away from the Town of Boydton drive up infrastructure costs (i.e., sewer service) with construction? All these questions remain unanswered, and any one of them has the potential to upend the truce that now exists between supervisors and trustees.

The vote by the School Board last week contained some surprises. It wasn’t too hard to guess that Rob Campbell, who represents District 6, would prove to be the swing vote, insofar as a centrally located school shading east would fall in his Baskerville-Palmer Springs area district. Campbell wasn’t the only member to defect from the previous five-member voting bloc in favor of twin east-west school complexes, however; Lindell Palmer in District 4 and Brent Richey in 1 also switched sides, while west-end trustees Glenn Edwards and Kenny Johnson voted “no” to school consolidation this time after previously giving the idea their strong support. Their objection was that an east-leaning location would put students in western Mecklenburg at an unfair disadvantage in terms of travel time to their new school, wherever it ends up.

These are reasonable objections. But so was the desire of many (if not most) in the South Hill community to keep their high school and middle school in close proximity to town. (Bluestone High School, stuck out in the pasture, had no such champions of its location.) All along, it’s been plain to see that the Board of Supervisors would never go along with building two new school complexes on both ends of the county. This is something people might lament, yet show little inclination to change. (Nor could they do so anytime soon, given that the next balloting for Board of Supervisors isn’t until 2019.) Considering all these factors, it became clear a long time ago that either Mecklenburg would build a single consolidated school complex, or build nothing at all. And that latter option should be unacceptable to all.

So now, under the deal reached last week, South Hill folks will say farewell to Park View High and Middle. In turn, western-end families will send their children to middle school and high school to a place some distance east of Boydton — perhaps fairly close to town, perhaps as far out as Route 4, near the dam. The exact details are, to repeat, unknown at this point. But it’s hardly a surprise — or any great injustice — that a solution would attempt to split the difference between the county’s east-end and west-end constituencies. That’s what compromises are all about. When nobody is entirely happy with the end result, you know you’ve arrived at your final destination.

The upside, of course, is that Mecklenburg County has a rare and precious opportunity to build a showcase school that can be the pride of southern Virginia and serve as a springboard for community progress and student learning for generations to come. That’s a deal worth taking despite the very real downsides of the bargain. Those downsides are just lesser parts of the sum. Still, compromises are inherently fragile, and often they can be undone in ways that no one expects. This puts the onus on the Board of Supervisors, the School Board and county and school administrators to follow through carefully on the details. Challenges aside, we’ll be rooting for their success.

***

The Sun was in mailboxes and on the street Wednesday morning with news of the School Board’s milestone decision the night before, thanks to the crackerjack work of reporter Susan Kyte, who filed her story at the end of the meeting. (The single-school vote came in the waning moments of a long meeting). Owing to the speed required to get the news in the paper the following morning, we weren’t able to expand our story to report a comment by trustee Dora Garner, who sarcastically suggested that school consolidation would lead to the positive result of South Hill businesses going out of business. This remark apparently was a jibe aimed at those who have complained that shutting down Park View High and Middle would hurt the local business community. That’s the context of Garner’s statement, anyway. The wisdom of it is a different matter entirely.

From personal experience writing this column, I know sarcasm is often the hardest sensibility to convey, especially when translated to the printed page — which is how Garner’s remark was always going to be spread outside the School Board meeting room. So I understand that she probably didn’t really mean for her statement to be taken literally. It was a deeply offensive and frankly stupid thing to say nonetheless. If you run a business (as I do), the last thing you want to hear is for someone to root for your failure, even if in jest. Anyone in South Hill or elsewhere who took offense at Garner’s comment has every right to do so.

Moral of the story: Avoid sarcasm when serving in elective office. And apologies, when warranted, aren’t too much to ask, or give.

***

Finally, it’s Week 1 of the Trump Administration and hoo boy, is it ever going to be a long four years. The past few days saw underpowered crowds at Donald Trump’s inauguration and millions of people across America and around the world taking to the streets to protest the Great Orange Menace. Just to be clear, the crowd size for Trump’s swearing-in ceremony is of no great significance; the District of Columbia delivered four percent of the vote to the Republican ticket in November, so it’s not like denizens of the capital were ever going to pour out onto the streets to hail the new president. The only person who apparently takes any of this stuff seriously is Trump himself, who as usual shows the impulse control of a 4-year-old in lashing out at his critics.

On the second day of the new administration, Trump gave a talk at CIA headquarters and White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivered a presser in which both men flat-out lied about the size of the inauguration crowd. (Said Trump: “I looked out, the field was ... it looked like a million, a million-and-a-half people,” adding that “it went all the way back to the Washington Monument.” The latter statement is plainly false, as a little invention known as photography revealed. Meantime, the consensus estimate for the crowd size at the inaugural has been around 250,000 people.) Spicer’s press conference on the same topic was so absurd that Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway coined a new phrase the next day on NBC’s “Meet The Press” to describe the spokesman’s modus operandi — “alternative facts.” Roll over, George Orwell, have you heard the news ….

Attempting to understand this display of political performance art, a few opinion pieces I’ve read have suggested a calculated effort by Trump to normalize lying as a way to lay the groundwork for various gruesome actions to come. The guidepost for this style of politics is the famous quote by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who observed “f you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Maybe. But the United States of America is not Nazi Germany, and millions of people didn’t demonstrate in the streets of Berlin and Dusseldorf on the second day of Adolph Hitler’s rule. More than a deliberative strategy by the Trump White House, the blizzard of falsehoods about the inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington the next day sound more like Trump just being Trump.

While he takes office as the popular vote loser with historically bad approval ratings, Trump does continue to benefit from the fact no one seems to know quite what to do with him. I’ve always preferred the critique of Trump as con man and fraud, but other interpretations have their merits. At one moment, our new president can be authoritarian and dangerous, the next he’s just ridiculous and small. Of course, all these observations can be true at once, and the resulting fog does work to Trump’s political benefit in certain ways. But they also describe a disaster in the making for the country if Trump’s tendencies signify a descent into the rule of a boy emperor.

At any rate, the Women’s March was a powerful statement that a huge swath of the country — likely a clear majority — isn’t buying into the Trump White House faux reality show. Trump can inflate his crowd numbers and tell fairy tales about “American carnage” visited upon working class communities (while stocking his administration with Goldman Sachs types), but the weekend demonstrations should remind everyone that the new president, rather than being a political colossus, is a weak figure. Which doesn’t mean he can’t do tremendous damage, thanks to Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. If the Women’s March produces 50 good candidates for the mid-term congressional elections two years from now, it will have been a rousing success. Until then, getting under Trump’s skin will have to do.





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