School Board to Consider CIP, Chester Middle Options

On Tuesday, the School Board will take up its capital improvement plan and a controversial proposal to close Chester Middle School and use the building for Thomas Dale High School’s freshmen.

In recent days, School Board Chairman Marshall Trammell Jr. said Monday, school system staff members have been putting together numbers for the School Board to look at in conjunction with the various options for addressing overcrowding at Thomas Dale, as well as comments made at last month’s public forum. “We have passed that information along that came in over the holidays,” he said, so the board will be able to look at other options that have been put forward.

Word of the plan to close the school began to spread through the community last month, and more than 150 people gathered at Chester Middle on Dec. 7 to protest the proposal, which school system officials had not confirmed at that point. On Dec. 8, officials confirmed that the School Board would that night review a proposal in the CIP to close Chester Middle at the end of the year, redistribute its students to Elizabeth Davis Middle School and Carver Middle School and use the building for Thomas Dale’s freshmen.

More than 200 people attended a Dec. 16 School Board forum on the proposal, and the vast majority of the nearly 40 people who spoke opposed closing Chester Middle. As of Monday night, nearly 2,100 people had joined a group supporting the school on Facebook, a popular social networking Web site.

In addition to the eight options considered initially by the school system, three options have been put forward by community members. Option 11, which is similar to option three, would move Thomas Dale’s freshmen, with the possible exception of specialty center students, to Davis Middle.

At the Dec. 16 forum, several speakers encouraged the School Board to consider options four and 10. Option four would keep all ninth graders from Thomas Dale at their middle schools, and option 10, which was proposed by Jim Copp, a former assistant principal of Thomas Dale and principal of Chester Middle, would involve moving 224 Thomas Dale students to Chester Middle for instruction each day.

At the Jan. 12 meeting, which will begin at 7 p.m., the board can either fully endorse the CIP, which includes the proposal to close Chester Middle, or choose an alternative strategy to address overcrowding at Thomas Dale, Trammell said. There may be more than one alternative put forward, he said.

“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that this is just a small part of our capital improvement plan,” he said.

Trammell said he wouldn’t say that any of the options had been taken off the table. It appears to him that the other School Board members are leaning toward not splitting Thomas Dale’s ninth grade, but even saying that is a stretch, he said.

Budget cuts are looming, he said, and “some of that impinges on some of the options we have.” “Whatever we do has got to pass the sniff test from a budget point of view,” he said.

Trammell said meetings with community groups on the issue have been productive, and “I think they have heard what we have said” and the other board members have heard their concerns. Other board members have told Trammell that they have heard the community loud and clear, he said, but they’ve also noted that not all students walk to Chester Middle now and there’s more to a sense of community than being able to walk to a school.

There is no magical or perfect solution, he said, and, as one board member said, “We know we’re not going to make everybody happy.” Even if vacant seats at the middle schools are filled, new school construction it still far off because of the recent $40 million cut in debt capacity and expected cuts to the school system’s operating budget.

“What we want people to understand is … there is no such thing as sending kids to a bad school,” he said. “That’s not going to happen in this county.”

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