Chester Middle School will house Thomas Dale’s freshmen next year

The School Board last week unanimously approved the school system’s five-year, roughly $183 million capital improvement program, which includes plans to use Chester Middle School to house Thomas Dale High School’s ninth graders starting next year.

Chester Middle’s rising eighth graders will remain in the building during the coming school year, and its rising sixth and seventh grade students will be redistricted to Elizabeth Davis Middle School and Carver Middle School.

At the start of the School Board’s Jan. 12 meeting, Dale District Member David Wyman was elected chairman of the board, and Bermuda District Member Marshall Trammell Jr. was elected vice chairman.

T. David Myers, assistant superintendent for business and finance, said one of the elements of the CIP for fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2015 was “the relief for the overcrowding at Thomas Dale.” Since the plan’s initial presentation on Dec. 8, a “tremendous number” of discussions had occurred, he said.

The staff’s recommendation, Myers said, was that the board approve the CIP as presented, including the proposal to house Thomas Dale’s ninth grade at Chester Middle, keep rising eighth graders at Chester Middle for the 2010-2011 school year and redistrict its other students to Elizabeth Davis and Carver middle schools.

In a Friday interview, Chesterfield County schools spokesman Shawn Smith said keeping the rising eighth graders at Chester Middle was “based on comments from the community.”

Several speakers took to the podium to share concerns about the proposal and encourage the board to slow the decision-making process.

Jim Copp, a former principal at Chester Middle and a member of the Save Chester Middle School committee, said the group had several concerns, including why a cost analysis of each proposal hadn’t been part of the process and why it was wasn’t OK to split the Thomas Dale freshman class, but it was OK to split the middle school.

Heather Hart said a five- to six-week timeframe was not long enough to make such decisions.

Trammell said he’d done his best to return the more than 225 calls he’d received in recent weeks. Several options for addressing the overcrowding had been added to the eight originally explored by the administration, he said.

One of the last options presented was to do nothing, he said, drawing cheers from the crowd.

“It’s not a new issue,” he said. When Thomas Dale was renovated, he reminded the community that overcrowding would return and the school couldn’t be expanded anymore, he said. The overcrowding has returned “with a vengeance,” he said.

The new high school was not eliminated from the CIP, he said, but rather pushed farther out in the timeline.

“Whatever the decision of the board is, in my mind it is a temporary decision to get where we need to be to build a new high school,” he said.

Trammell said someone asked him whether the people calling him were primarily for or against closing the school, and he told them “at this point, it’s running about 50-50.”
Clover Hill Member Dianne Pettitt said she understood the passion of those at the meeting, but she thought the CIP was “turning us in a right direction.” The panel unanimously approved the CIP.

The community continued to react to the decision late last week. Kent Dodd, a member of the Save Chester Middle School committee, said the board made the decision to close the school without reviewing any analysis of what doing so would cost.

“No business owner could ever expect to get away with that,” he said. Also, no report has been done on the plan’s traffic impact, he said.

On Friday, Smith said the CIP came with three caveats: the school system’s debt capacity had been reduced, there were three middle schools under capacity and Thomas Dale was at 130 percent of its functional capacity. All three issues had to be addressed, he said, and “we put forward a plan that saved $43 million in the CIP.”

“After the vote, the community has raised some very good questions, which we are working diligently on to provide answers,” Smith said.

Angela Jenkins, another member of the Save Chester Middle School committee, said she’d called the school system to get on the speakers list for the Jan. 12 meeting, and was told there would be 10 speakers and she was one of them. But, she said, she was not allowed to speak at the meeting.

Smith said policy allows for 30 minutes of public comment, which allows time for 10, three-minute speakers.

“It would appear at this time that it was an oversight Ms. Jenkins did not have an opportunity to speak before the School Board and we apologize for the misunderstanding,” he said.

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