Trailers, rezoning top parents’ concerns

Published 11:16 am Wednesday, February 14, 2018

By Ryan Kushner and Diana McFarland

Staff writers 

The use of trailers and the question of rezoning were some of the top concerns of parents and residents during two facility planning meetings hosted by Isle of Wight County schools. 

The meetings at Smithfield and Windsor high schools were held to gather input from community members about long-range plans of the division, which was hit by a burst of unexpected growth this year, much of it concentrated in the ninth grade.

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Crowded school buildings are beginning to be a concern, and plans for a new elementary school that have been in the division’s capital improvement plan for years are being reexamined. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton announced the need to put trailers at both Westside Elementary School and Carrollton Elementary School in the upcoming years due to a lack of available classrooms.

Security procedures for the trailers were a particular concern among attendees at the Smithfield meeting. 

“That’s a tough one,” Thornton said of security measures for school trailers. “You can lock the door … [Trailers are] not the best answer.”

Thornton said that trailers are necessary whenever a new school is going to be built, but that they are by no means a permanent solution.

One of the questions posed by the division for meeting attendees was how long it was acceptable to have trailers, and how many were acceptable.

Attendees at both meetings were given sticky notes to place on boards with questions taped around the room.

Responses ranged from one trailer is too many to no more than four at one school. 

The division has budgeted $500,000 for a two-classroom trailer for Westside next year, and another $500,000 for a trailer at Carrollton the year after that.

Asked about the relatively high price at the meeting, Thornton said that leasing is also a viable option for the division, and that his estimates for the trailers were intended to be on the high end.

At the meetings, Thornton said the latest estimates to build a new elementary school in the northern end of the county were $36 million (the previous CIP estimated $22 million for the project).

Taking out a 20-year loan to construct the 1,000 student capacity school would equate to $2.6 million annually in debt service payments and be the equivalent of a six cent tax increase, according to Thornton.

Thornton also provided a break-out of how that would add to the yearly tax load based on the value of a home — an additional $180 a year for a house valued at $300,000 to $60 a year for a $100,000 house.

The question of rezoning also received a good deal of response, with most Windsor attendees unwilling to have children on a bus for longer than a hour, nor did they believe it was acceptable to have children driving past Smithfield High School to attend Windsor High School. 

One Smithfield attendee said that she felt it would be unfair to move students who had just a few more years until graduation away from the school they’d grown up in.

“It’s a horrible, tough conversation, second to closing a school,” Thornton said of rezoning at the Smithfield meeting.

In Windsor, nearly all wanted children to attend a school in the same community in which they lived. 

Another question Thornton posed was, if a new school is built, what should happen to the other schools? In other words, is it fair to have a “shiny” new school and leave Hardy Elementary School, one of the division’s oldest buildings, untouched?

“Bring old schools up to date because it will be a while before a new school is built,” read one of many responses posted in Smithfield supporting renovations to current schools as well.

Some Smithfield attendees expressed frustration that the division did not already have plans in place, when housing developments in the county, such as Benn’s Grant, have already been approved for several years.

A county-wide debate was spurred last fall when developers of Benn’s Grant, seeking approval for addition housing at the site, cited a study commissioned by the division that suggested moderate growth in the county schools.

Thornton and the School Board have disputed the study, which did not factor in approved housing developments, and Thornton has cited this year’s burst of new students as evidence it was erroneous.

The state also incorrectly predicted a decline of students in the division this year, according to Thornton.

“We have to study that further and have an answer and it’s not about pushing blame,” said Thornton in Smithfield of future student population projections. “I said it was a horrible study. We asked for a study but they couldn’t produce.”

Thornton did not give firm answers to some questions, such as estimates of when the new school would be built and where, stating that he wanted to make sure the division looked at all the data and received significant input from the community before making a proposal for a timeline.

In December, the School Board voted to expedite the design plans for a new school, moving it up to be prepared three years from now, instead of five.

The information from the two meetings will be compiled and turned into a survey that will be sent to parents and shared with the community through the division’s website and social media. A committee of community members will work with the survey results to develop options for future facilities that will again be shared through similar community meetings, according to schools spokesperson Lynn Briggs.  {/mprestriction}