A final hurdle likely remains to be cleared before the school system can use the Chester Middle School building to house Thomas Dale High School’s freshman class this fall.
On Monday, Planning Director Kirk Turner said he thought his department would soon receive an application from the School Board for a finding that the new use of the Chester Middle building is “substantially in accord” with the county’s comprehensive plan. The substantial accord procedure “promotes coordinated planning in the siting of public facilities and maintains compatible land use patterns,” according to the policy.
Turner said the School Board was meeting Monday and he would have more information on the matter Tuesday.
“I anticipate an application soon,” Turner said.
On Friday, School Board Vice Chairman Marshall Trammell said the board had asked its attorney to look into whether it needed to apply for substantial accord. Once it has the information, the School Board will decide whether to apply, he said, and “I suspect we’d be doing that fairly soon.”
Last month, Turner said a finding of substantial accord was not needed to move Chester Middle School’s students to another location, but was needed to reuse the middle school for something other than a middle school. At that point, Turner’s department was “in conversation with the School Board” about the matter, he said.
“The only trigger is that it be done before they open the door for something other than a middle school use,” he said.
The substantial accord process usually takes 90 days, once the application is submitted, he said. When the application comes before the Planning Commission, the public has time to comment on it, Turner said. The commission then considers the facts and arrives at a substantial accord determination, he said.
The commission’s decision is reported to the Board of Supervisors, which can accept the decision, refer the matter back to the commission or overrule the action. The applicant can also appeal to the supervisors.
On Friday, Trammell said, based on the information he has and his experience serving on the board for 19 years, his personal opinion is that getting substantial accord “is not something the board needs to do.”
The state’s constitution and laws state “very clearly” that a school system has control over its schools, he said. As long as the use doesn’t change drastically – from a school to an office building, for example – the school system is within its rights, he said.
Though others may differ with his opinion, there are examples that support his position, he said. The school system didn’t have to have substantial accord when it added pre-kindergarten to its elementary schools, he said, or when it began using the old Matoaca High School as Matoaca Middle School.
“We’re not changing the use of the school, we’re changing the age of the school,” he said.
The board has had public hearings and meetings on the proposal to move the students to the different schools, as well as the redistricting process, he said, and has listened to all the different options.
“I think we have, from our perspective, we’ve exhausted what we need to do as far as getting input from the public,” Trammell said.
On Monday, Heather Hart, a member of Citizens United for Responsible Government, the group formerly known as Save Chester Middle School, said the group had been following the substantial accord issue because it wants the School Board members “to be held accountable for their decision.” There are costs associated with using Chester Middle as part of Thomas Dale, Hart said, and she believes more and more costs will be discovered as the process continues.
“We just want them to be accountable for their actions and apply for substantial accord like they’re supposed to,” Hart said. “And we think that they need to do it quickly so it can be processed and completed.”