Though the Planning Commission found that using Chester Middle School as a ninth grade academy complies with the comprehensive plan, the commissioners made no secret of their frustration with the School Board last week.
“I believe the School Board started a war and they couldn’t win it, so they put the Planning Commission right in the middle of that,” Clover Hill District Commissioner Russell J. Gulley said at the commission’s May 18 meeting.
The panel voted 3-2, with Matoaca District Commissioner F. Wayne Bass and Midlothian District Commissioner Reuben J. Waller, Jr. in dissent, to find that using Chester Middle to house Thomas Dale High School’s ninth grade next year is substantially in accord with the county’s comprehensive plan.
CHANGES IN SCHOOL CIP
On Jan. 12, the School Board unanimously approved the school system’s capital improvement program, which includes plans to change Chester Middle’s use. 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. 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.
In a letter to the editor included in a recent issue of the Village News, School Board Chairman David Wyman wrote that “the Board did not need to seek substantial accord in this case.”
STATING THEIR CASE
At the May 18 meeting, Planning and Special Projects Manager Jane Peterson presented the staff’s recommendation. The recommendation cites the Public Facilities Plan, an element of the comprehensive plan, which “indicates that existing schools may be converted from one school type to another provided that the converted school is consistent with the locational and other criteria of the plan.”
Members of Citizens United for Responsible Government argued that the conversion of the building was not in accordance with the comprehensive plan.
CURG Member Jennifer Grossnickle said the traffic situation on Route 10 in the area was already dangerous, and converting the middle school would make matters worse. And, twice each day, students redistricted to Elizabeth Davis Middle will travel through the intersection of Rt. 10 and Route 1, which the Virginia Department of Transportation has dubbed “the most dangerous intersection in the Richmond district,” she said.
CURG member and former Chester Middle principal Jim Copp said there seemed to be some conflict between various calculations of Thomas Dale’s capacity, and the school system would not provide information to resolve the confusion.
“This is not a bricks and mortar decision, but one about community and enabling it to survive,” CURG member Kent Dodd said. “It’s about protecting and maintaining the integrity of the community.”
COMMISSIONERS SHARE OPINIONS, FRUSTRATIONS
Bass said statistics didn’t show that the conversion was a “safe move,” or that it was a good decision economically. Waller said he was concerned that the overcrowding issue at Thomas Dale remained cloudy.
“I don’t think that the overcrowding case had been proven substantially to me to support substantial accord,” Waller said.
Gulley said he’d met with CURG members prior to the commission meeting.
“These problems that you’re describing are all caused by School Board decisions,” he said. “[But] I think legally we have to look at this substantial accord from a very narrow focus.”
There has been some discussion among the School Board members, he said, and “they did not take very kindly to the Planning Commission hearing this” substantial accord application.
“There’s been some discussion of taking the Planning Commission to court,” Gulley said. “Their attitude is, ‘We’re the School Board and we can do whatever we want.’”
But, he said, he believes the conversion is in accord with the comprehensive plan. Commission Chairman William Brown said he agreed with Gulley’s analysis of the issue.
“There’s an election coming up in 2011,” he said. “In my opinion, all five of them [the school board members] should be replaced.”
Bermuda District Commissioner Sam Hassen said he empathized with the problems presented by CURG, but, “unfortunately, we’re looking at this from a land-use standpoint.”
Whether the capacity issue at Thomas Dale is real or not real, “that’s not our responsibility, nor under our authority to speak to,” he said.
“You have to look at the full comprehensive plan,” he said, and it says the School Board has the right to realign students and determine the use of its schools.
CCPS, SCHOOL BOARD CHAIRMAN RESPONSE
On Friday, Wyman said he’d “really like to focus folks attention on … the issue itself;” the problem the board was attempting to solve was the “tremendous overcrowding” at Thomas Dale High.
“I’m really not going to comment on the outburst from the Planning Commission,” he said.
The School Board has focused on solving problems in the current economic conditions, Wyman said. Some tough decisions have had to be made, and the decision to close Chester Middle was among them, he said.
Wyman said the board had consulted with its attorney and the Virginia School Board Association about the substantial accord issue. On Friday, school spokesman Shawn Smith said there are “no plans at this time to seek legal relief from the proceedings.”
Effectively, with the Chester middle conversion, the board was doing some redistricting and changing the use of a building, Wyman said. The panel considered the issue a school issue, “quite frankly, at our own peril, because we take full responsibility for our decision,” he said.
SUPERVISORS TAKING UP ISSUE?
Board of Supervisors Chairman Dan Gecker said Monday that he would ask the supervisors to add the matter to the agenda for their Wednesday, May 26, meeting.
“The matter is ready for a decision,” he said. “It’s a simple land use issue. … It’s an operational decision that’s within the purview of the School Board. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be approved.”