Commission to consider new use for Chester Middle School building

County staffers will recommend next week that the Planning Commission find that using Chester Middle School as a ninth grade academy is substantially in accord with Chesterfield’s comprehensive plan, but a group of concerned citizens is preparing its case for why the finding should not be granted.

Members of Citizens United for Responsible Government (CURG) met last week to discuss a presentation they planned to give at the Planning Commission’s May 18 meeting, where a public hearing on the issue will take place.

On Jan. 12, the School Board unanimously approved the school system’s capital improvement program, which includes plans to use Chester Middle to house Thomas Dale High School’s ninth graders starting next year. Initially, Chester Middle’s rising eighth graders were to remain in the building next year, while its rising sixth and seventh grade students were to be redistricted to Elizabeth Davis Middle School and Carver Middle School.

On Feb. 23, the School Board voted to redistrict Chester Middle’s rising eighth graders to Carver and Elizabeth Davis middle schools along with their younger peers. Officials have said moving Thomas Dale’s freshmen to the Chester Middle building will help alleviate overcrowding at the high school.

The substantial accord procedure “promotes coordinated planning in the siting of public facilities and maintains compatible land use patterns,” according to the policy. Last month, Planning Director Kirk Turner filed the application for substantial accord because he felt the finding was necessary for the school’s new use, he said last week.

“The School Board elected not to [apply],” he said. “I think they’re of the opinion that it wasn’t required.”

In a letter to the editor included in this issue of the Village News, School Board Chairman David Wyman writes that using Chester Middle to house Thomas Dale High’s ninth grade

“is within the authority vested by the Code of Virginia to the School Board.”

“The Board did not need to seek substantial accord in this case,” he writes.

The planning staff will make a brief presentation and recommend approval of the request at the May 18 meeting, Turner said.

In a position paper submitted to the Planning Commission last month, CURG outlined the reasons it is against the substantial accord finding being granted. According to CURG, substantial accord should not be granted because: removing Chester Middle would be in direct opposition to the comprehensive plan; transporting students to Elizabeth Davis Middle and between the two Thomas Dale High campuses would have a negative impact on traffic; and $12 million was spent in 2001 to allow the Chester Middle building to function specifically as a middle school, among other reasons.

Planning Commission Chairman William Brown said, in his opinion, a high school at the Chester Middle site is as much in compliance with the comprehensive plan as a middle school is.

“The issue is whether or not a high school is in compliance with the comprehensive plan on that site because the comprehensive plan specifically says middle school,” Brown said.

“Based on what I’ve looked at and seen, the answer is yes.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of unresolved differences of opinion as to whether a middle school or a high school ninth grade is the best use from the school system’s point of view. … That’s an issue that has to be resolved by the School Board.”

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