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Middle school consolidation hearing draws mixed responses

By SHANNON WATKINS

shannon@southwesttimes.com

 

On Friday night at Pulaski County High School’s Little Theater, the Pulaski County School Board held another hearing regarding the county’s middle schools, this time asking for public opinion on consolidating them into one.

School Board Chairman Mike Barbour gave a brief welcome before turning the proceedings over to School Superintendant Dr. Tom Brewster, who called speakers up one at time.

Opinions were mixed, and not all were clearly for or against the consolidation. Most of the roughly 20 speakers, whether pro or con, expressed a desire to be cautious financially and an understanding that higher taxes to pay for the school would be inevitable.

“The town of Pulaski is fortunate that we have two elementary schools, a middle school, and also the governor’s school. I think most people would agree that the schools are an important part of our community. Our schools are also a large economic engine,” said Pulaski Mayor Jeff Worrell. “Our schools draw a large number of people into town every day, and those people are inevitably going to purchase goods and services while they’re in town.”

He asked that if the two middle schools are consolidated, “Please, please, please do not leave another empty school building in the town of Pulaski or the town of Dublin.” He described such buildings as “eyesores” that deteriorated quickly once abandoned, and named examples such as Jefferson and Hiwassee elementary schools. “I would ask that you make the disposition of the existing middle school property part of the package,” he concluded.

Ranny Akers, currently of Radford, and a former Pulaski County Board of Supervisors member, did not favor consolidation, saying better maintenance is the best route. “Good old-fashioned TLC goes a long way,” he said. Akers also said that if a new middle school is needed, the board should make the existing PCHS building the middle school and build a new high school. Otherwise, he said, children would have a new facility for middle school and then go back to an older building to attend high school. Akers pointed out that the high school needed better maintenance as well.

Sandy Dowdy and Rick Montgomery, both of Pulaski, said they agreed with Akers and had nothing to add to his statement. Becky Cox said using the high school as middle school is a good idea.

Those who spoke unequivocally against consolidation touched heavily on the theme of cost. Barbara McFall of Pulaski, whose granddaughter, according to her, attends a private Christian academy, said, “If the taxes go up when we build the new school, teachers will not get a raise. We will not be able to afford it. Do we still owe on Pulaski Elementary? How much do we owe? Do we still owe on Riverlawn? How much do we owe? I know we’re deep in debt. And when you’re in debt, you don’t jump in deeper.”

“I think this consolidation is a bad idea,” said former Dublin town council member Sam Gregory. “Think long and hard before you spend that money.” Speaker Malcolm Booth said that according to his information, about 50 percent of Pulaski County students receive free lunches, and given that fact, he didn’t see how taxpayers would be able to afford a new school. (This statistic was later confirmed by School Nutrition Supervisor Ethelene Sadler.) “We all have to live within our means,” said Booth.

“If taxes go too high, will people stay?” asked B.J. Ratliff, a PCHS graduate. As for what children would earn from seeing a new middle school built, she said, “Don’t paint this beautiful mural that life is easy and it’s a paved way and you’ll always have the nicest amenities, when truth is, you gotta work for it. You have to do something to get there.” She said she did not doubt that renovations need to be done, but consider the consequences.

Other, non-fiscal concerns were also brought up. Bobby Dalton of Dublin, who has children in the Pulaski school system, said children need sleep and some, depending on where they lived, would have to get up very early to get to bus stops. Another speaker, Dreama Hagee of Dublin, agreed, saying that parents and children would have further to drive to the new school. Dalton also felt that given the underdeveloped maturity of middle-school aged children, he was concerned about having so many students under one roof; Hagee said that at their current school, her grandchildren brought their own lunches because cafeteria lines were already too long and slow, and that these and other problems would be worse at a larger school.

Rod Layman of Pulaski said Pulaski Middle School had the most attractive location in the county, and that he felt it could be cost-effective to renovate it, citing the courthouse and buildings at colleges such as Virginia Tech and William & Mary as examples of successful renovation. “I’m not suggesting you not do what is good for Pulaski County students,” he said. “If you have technology equipment problems, perhaps rewiring would be appropriate. But I’m being told these days wireless is taking over. So perhaps it’s not as great a need as it was in the recent past.”

Those who spoke out for the consolidation touched on the ideas of bringing schools up to date, helping improve the county overall and moving into the future.

The need for more modern facilities was brought up repeatedly. Paul Phillips, who said he helped open Dublin Middle School when it was new, said everyone at the school realized even then the school was inadequate for kids’ needs. “I don’t think our middle school students have ever been presented an opportunity, for example, in science. You cannot have a science program in a room with no running water and two plug-ins. Our teachers need the facilities to do their jobs, and frankly I don’t think these buildings are constructed to do that.”

Jeff Phillips said in his job in heavy construction, he has been to many schools in surrounding counties and Pulaski County facilities do not compare favorably.

“I just respectfully ask you to go at 2 o’clock on a hot day and see … what your kids have to live in every day,” said teacher Andrea Jarrells, referring to the fact that many schools lack a proper HVAC system. Becky Cox agreed. “Air conditioning should never have been considered something you can do without,” Cox said.

Antonio Nottingham, who has lived in the county for nine years, has two children in the school system. He said he doesn’t like the “us vs. them’ mentality between Dublin and Pulaski, and that keeping separate schools, old or new, would result in uneven advantages towards Dublin. As for cost, he said, “When I was going to college, my mother couldn’t honestly afford college for me. But she was able to do so and she found a way to do so. The costs are going to be high. But for my kids, and the future of the county, I’m willing to pay that cost.” He revealed that when he and his wife were looking for a home in the area, realtors told them not to move to Pulaski County because they would be disappointed in the schools.

“Education is really important,” said E.W. Harless, who nonetheless wanted to be careful with spending. “I’m looking at what money buys and what you can get for your dollar.”

Annie Whitaker of Pulaski, who has two children in a Pulaski County elementary school, said she felt kids are resilient and able to adapt to a bigger facility, and better schools would draw more people and improve the county. “I think that we’re able to meet these challenges,” she said. “We have amazing teachers, and people who really care about these children.”

“I appreciate the individuals who came out to express their opinions,” said Brewster after the hearing. “I think it’s great to hear that so many people care about their school system and care about their community.”

“I certainly appreciate everybody coming out tonight,” said Barbour. “I think this was the best-attended meeting that we’ve had. I don’t think you can make a good decision about this or any decision unless you have the broadest number of opinions possible.”

“I was here just to listen,” said Pulaski County Board of Supervisors Chairman Joe Sheffey. “I think the key thing right now is that a lot of information is being exchanged.” He said he would remain neutral until the school board makes a decision.

Comments

comments

4 Responses to Middle school consolidation hearing draws mixed responses

  1. Spouse of a teacher in the county

    September 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Having grown up in Pulaski County and attended both DMS and PCHS, I can honestly say that we must seriously consider the costs of not building a new school to attract more business and give much needed leverage to our county when it comes to competing for new employers and new citizens. Over the years I have heard of several instances where new families to the area moved to Montgomery County or Radford, primarily because our school structures and system were viewed as poor. As a new home buyer with kids looking to establish residency, the school system and aesthetics of the buildings can and should be key decision factors. Of all the local neighborhood amenities that can influence a buyer’s decision to purchase a home, proximity to good quality schools is one of the most influential. According to the 2012 National Association of REALTORS® Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers.

  2. Concerned Citizen

    September 23, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    How can people say we should not build due to cost? The information that the board is working with shows that it is cheaper to build one school than to rehab the current schools. Long term maintenance will be cheaper maintaining one school, as well as infrastructure needs. Why are people against merging the schools? It needs to be done. The argument to send them to new middle school and old high school is equally laughable. If this is the case we would have to build a new high school every time we build any school, since we only have the one school. True our maintenance appears it could be better, but until we provide a new school we can never get these old buildings that are money traps off our backs.

  3. Sick of the debate

    September 24, 2013 at 9:52 am

    So when do they think that they will make a decision on this? This is something that should have been taken care of a long time ago. I have always wondered why Riverlawn was able to get another elementary school and then the schools system turns around and used the building for several more years? The combined middle school, would accommodate a much larger population? I guess it just depends on what “community” that you live in! I agree with the Spouse of a teacher, I can not believe that the powers to be cannot realize that when potential home buyers move to a community that the school system is usually the number one priority to them. Our teachers and our students deserve so much more than what they are receiving! Yet people wonder why we can not keep teachers in Pulaski County? A big shout of to our teachers and thank you! Most of the community hope that our “scared of change” counsel will make the right decision!

  4. PMSDAD

    September 24, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    Where has the planing been for this? Is there any money set aside for this? I mean, the leadership knew one day we would need new schools. This should not be done until a portion can be paid out of pocket, as opposed to financing the entire projects. Taxpayer (homeowners), should not have to foot the bill for this entire project. Also, to all those screaming for a single new middle school. One school means less teachers and staff, so layoffs will have to happen. One school means larger class sizes and less one on one teacher/student interaction. One school means one middle school team per sport. Fewer kids will get the opportunity to develop their skills with just one middle school team feeding the high school. With all the bad things that can come from this consolidation, be very careful what you ask for, you just may get it.

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