By SHANNON WATKINS
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.