The Chesterfield Board of Supervisors in a 4-1 vote took no action on the Planning Commission’s May 18 determination that Chester Middle School would be permitted to be closed and converted to a ninth-grade academy for the overcrowded Thomas Dale High School.
Matoaca District Supervisor Marleen Durfee made a motion to take action on the commission’s determination that the School Board’s decision to convert the school was in substantial accord with the county’s public facilities plan, but she got no support from the rest of the board.
“I firmly believe that we would not be here tonight if it were not for some past decisions,” Durfee said. “And we have officials that want to hide behind bad decisions.”
Durfee was referring to the Chesterfield County School Board’s decision to build Elizabeth Davis Middle School some years ago. “We’re at the point where the School Board is being questioned,” she said.
Members of the group Citizens United for Responsible Government (CURG) presented their objections to closing the middle school, which included the negative impact on the Chester Village’s character and property values, traffic, transportation of students out of the Chester area and the School Board not giving adequate notice and public input time. The group also argued that calculations for measuring student functional capacity at Thomas Dale were skewed.
“Make no mistake about it, this is more than a building decision. It’s about protecting and maintaining the integrity of a community and enabling it to thrive into the future,” said Kent Dodd, a CURG member. “According to the Virginia Deptartment of Education capacity formula for high schools,” Dodd continued, “Thomas Dale High School is not as overcrowded as the school division alleges.”
Thomas Dale Assistant Principal Gene Brown told the board that Thomas Dale is extremely overcrowded and pointed to the measures taken to provide additional space inside the school. Principal Robert Stansberry said CCPS uses a formula to calculate functional capacity that reduces the overall capacity for special education and ESL – English as a second language – classrooms. He said they also take two computer labs out of capacity so they are available to all teachers.
Stansberry also said state law requires a student-to-teacher ratio of not more than 21 to one. He said Thomas Dale was built for a capacity of 1,840 and during the recent year housed 2,396.
The CURG group said the public was given a total of five weeks to absorb the Dec. 8, 2009 announcement to close CMS before the School Board finalized that decision, which, according to the group, began almost two years ago.
School Board Chairman David Wyman refuted the CURG claims, laying out the timeline of how the board came to decide on the CMS closing.
“As we saw the erosion of capital budget funding erode in the fall of 2009, we looked at a smaller alternative high school model borne out of the growth task force ... with a smaller footprint that might house 1,000 students,” Wyman said. “But even that lower-cost alternative would have been hard to justify in the economic climate in which we find ourselves.”
He said that during the time between December 2009 and February 2010, the School Board review 14 different options to resolve the overcrowding problem. Wyman continued that after receiving input from e-mails, letters, phone calls and two public sessions, the board decided to move Chester Middle students to Carver and Elizabeth Davis middle schools and commissioned a citizen’s committee to determine the new boundaries.
Wyman said it could be 2018 before the middle schools reach capacity and the School Board has a chance to finance a new high school and build it, thereby returning the CMS building to a middle school use.