By SHANNON WATKINS
Last Thursday night the Pulaski County High School’s Little Theater was the site of a meeting for public feedback on the school study conducted by architectural and engineering firm OWPR.
The study concluded that the Dublin Elementary, Dublin Middle and Pulaski Middle school buildings had outlived their lifespan and either needed renovation or replacement. The study also offered the option of consolidating the middle schools.
Members of the public were invited to speak in turn, with each person allotted five minutes. Some school board and Board of Supervisors members were present; Pulaski County School Superintendant Dr. Tom Brewster led the event from the theater’s stage.
Comments were varied throughout the evening, but the running theme was a need for change as soon as possible, though ideas about the exact nature of the change were different.
Among those who spoke was E.W. Harless, who works in Norfolk Southern’s engineering department. “I’ve looked at what the handouts says, and this has been discussed for I know 25-plus years,” he said. “We’ve gone through more supervisors, we’ve gone though different school board members, and it seems like all that’s happened is it’s been discussed. Twenty-five years ago, if we would have started setting money aside, we would be in good shape.”
Harless outlined his own educational experience, saying, “I was one that slipped through the cracks in the school system, with learning disabilities. I know how hard it has been for 42-plus years to try to stay ahead because of not having the proper education. I’m not ashamed of it, it’s just the way that it happened. What I would be ashamed of is for our school board and Board of Supervisors to let any more slip in the cracks. My feelings is, let’s bite the bullet, save the money on the stuff that you can save it on, without undermining, and let’s do it.”
Local business owner and Board of Supervisors member Andy McCready took perhaps the most cautious approach of the evening.
“We got a few comments that this is going to be a large project for our school board. It really requires a lot of thought. Because it’s going to be a 50-year decision.” He said that the study’s parameters were good as far as they went, but at least one important factor was left out. “The one thing we didn’t ask,” he said, “was what could we afford. If we, Pulaski County, move forward with a new combined middle school and a new Dublin Elementary School, which was the most expensive two alternatives, it would require a 29-cent property tax increase for 20 years. For 20 years,” he repeated. “That’s a 50 percent rise in our property tax. Something like that is going to have to be decided by the voters. Because that puts our taxes above Montgomery County’s. That’s going to put us in a very difficult position.”
McCready also advised against combining middle schools, saying it was better to talk to retired teachers from an earlier era and find out what problems the last consolidation had. However, he also stated that he believed Pulaski Middle School was not worth renovating. McCready noted that according to his findings, most Pulaski County elementary schools were built to handle a larger student population than they had, and that it was worth finding out, “what can we add to Critzer to make it the new Pulaski Middle School?” while admitting that the school would need renovation.
“From a cashflow standpoint, we have eight more years of payments on three existing schools. So we’ve got to be able to pay those,” he said. He told the assembly that the Board of Supervisors had just sent off a $1.3 million payment for Riverlawn Elementary. “That’s a lot of money, folks. So I agree with Mr. Harless. I think this problem has been brewing for a long time…This problem wasn’t created overnight, it won’t be solved overnight…I think we need to look at a roadmap of improvements for the schools each and every year.”
Substitute teacher Andrea Jarrells said that despite potential tax increase, she felt that even older voters would allow a tax increase if they saw the conditions of some of the schools that their grandchildren are being educated in.
“What I have to say is, come and spend time with these children in these schools,” she said. “Come and sit with them every day in this heat and breathe in the dust and the mold, and then come back and tell me what you think, OK? Because you may have grandchildren that may not be in there now, but may be someday. I’d rather have an increase in taxes to know that it’s going to the future of this county…but do what you need to do. What are you going to do when the floor collapses? Or the roof caves in? Because it’s coming. If you were in there day in and day out and saw these conditions, you would understand.”
“I would like the school board employees come and work in the middle schools,” she said. “Let’s switch it around. Let’s have our kids go attend school at the school board office, and maybe then there might be a sense of urgency.”
Regarding the board, she went on to say, “The school board should be an open door for teachers to come to, and feel comfortable. You know why the public doesn’t know what goes on in these schools, and the conditions? Because teachers are afraid to come forth for fear of retaliation, quite honestly. I feel like we should be working together but I feel like I’ve been talking for months, and nothing’s being done. Get up and get something done!”
Jarrells said that she was against combining the middle schools, but “rather than leave my children in the hellhole that they’re learning in every day, I would rather them be able to come somewhere they enjoy.” She said she felt the public was being appeased but nothing was getting done. “It’s not enough. It’s time to move.” Her comments received a smattering of applause.
Brewster addressed her remarks, saying, “I’ll tell you, Ms. Jarrells, if you ever attend one of our teacher round table sessions, you’ll see that our teachers aren’t too afraid to speak. They speak their mind.”
“Well, that’s not what I’ve been told,” said Jarrells.
“Well, you need to come to one of our round table meetings. And I don’t think there’s any fear of retaliation there, I can tell you that,” Brewster said. “Would anyone else like to speak?”
Marilou Sanders, a special education teacher, replied to Jarrells’ earlier remarks and said, “I teach at Pulaski Middle School. And we have no air conditioning. We nourish our children, and we are not a hellhole. And I don’t appreciate that comment.” Sanders also described problems that had come from consolidating schools when she was a student, and said that she thought children might be overwhelmed and overlooked in a larger facility.
“I apologize,” said Jarrells. Later in the evening, she elaborated, “I want to apologize for that. I get fired up. When it comes to my kids, the mama bear comes out in me. So I do apologize for that comment. And Mr. McCready, I am very appreciative of you throwing your ideas out there, I think that’s wonderful. I just think we need to do something. Let’s go. Come on.” She laughed. “I’ll be your cheerleader all the way.”
Melissa Gilbert, a math teacher at Dublin Middle, said, “I am a product of Pulaski County Schools and have come back here to work. It just seems like for 20 years I’ve been told ‘We’re working on it, we’re working on it, we’re going to do something.’ I was supposed have been in a new middle school in 2012. It’s 2013 and we’re in the exact same place. I work in a classroom that has not been painted for 20 years. Nothing has been done in my classroom for 20 school years.”
She said that she preferred smaller schools and felt like more of the students had a chance to participate in them as opposed to a larger school, but really wanted the county to do something soon. Gilbert also said she is willing to suffer in the heat for work but felt it was not acceptable for children.
“I went to the elementary school to drop something off while my child was there. I walked into the classroom, all the lights were out, the students were sitting there working, and sweat was dripping onto their paper. I cried all the way back to my school…our kids are worth more than we’re giving them,” she said.
Andy McCready spoke again, saying that he understood the frustration for all concerned, given the wait time on bids and proposals. “It’s been a learning experience for me,” he said.
A few others had words of praise for the school board and expressed a desire to see action taken. Brewster started to dismiss the meeting, but Harless interjected, saying, “Now wait a minute…let’s just cut to the chase, and let’s just throw it out on the table.”
He said, “I agree with you, Mr. McCready, that people don’t like tax increases. They don’t like tax increases towards $2 million to the jail. They don’t like tax increases for Maple Shade. They don’t like tax increases towards the county administration building. Let me tell you something, there’s been enough money, thrown away in this county, to start building schools.”
In a heated speech, Harless lambasted local government for “sitting on their thumbs” and that it was his belief that too much money was being spent by local government on itself. He also indicated that action needed to be taken on behalf of getting the schools replaced or improved. Harless apologized at the end “if I got out of hand, but I have heard excuses, excuses, excuses. I apologize, but that’s it.”
“At this time we will conclude our public meeting. We certainly appreciate you all coming out. One of the things that’s real good to hear—I haven’t heard one single person think that we should sit and do nothing. And so we appreciate you all coming out and we appreciate you all speaking, and thank you.”
After the meeting, Brewster said, “I’m glad that it was spirited and that people are passionate enough to come out and speak about our schools. The decision is, what direction do we go in?”