Mecklenburg County is on the verge of a wonderful opportunity that will have an incredible and historic impact on the future of all its citizens; we are about to build new 21st Century middle and high schools. The Board of Supervisors and School Board held a joint meeting last Thursday, July 21st, to receive the final report on this project from Crabtree Rohrbaugh Associates & Architects (CRA&A.) The report outlined recommendations of the Steering Committee toward this goal. This study was very community focused; having two public hearings to gather information, two separate online surveys to gather public perception, and four information sessions throughout the county to seek public input and report on findings. The local press has done an outstanding job of following and reporting the process. After hearing the report, and entertaining questions and discussion about the results, the Board of Supervisors approved a motion to allow the School Board to determine the best course of action to take to move forward with new construction. The School Board’s final recommendation, determined by a vote at a special session on Tuesday, July 26th, will have to go back to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
The original charge of the Board of Supervisors to the Steering Committee was three fold: (this list is a summary of the actual language)
- · To determine if current middle and high schools are adequate to support the educational programs needed to prepare students for 21st Century jobs and careers.
- · To determine what changes are necessary to create this environment.
- · To determine what option will most adequately meet the goals while being fiscally responsible to the needs of the larger community.
It took very little time to determine that the current facilities are anything but adequate for this charge. The schools were built in the 1950’s with the goal of providing an education that prepares students for jobs of the Industrial Age rather than the Information Age and the global economy. Facility engineers determined that to update the current facilities to meet current state and federal building code would cost more than the price of new buildings, and cost even more to accomodate new educational expectations.
The Virginia Department of Education and the state Legislature have identified the educational programs needed to prepare students for the 21st Century as they push schools to engage students with the goals of “Portrait of a Graduate” and “High School Redesign”. I have written extensively about these goals in former newspaper articles and online blogs. Just last week at the Virginia School Board Associations education conference Governor McAuliffe charged trustees from around the state to “Be bold with your action to create the schools that will prepare students for this new economy.” He spoke of tens of thousands of high-tech jobs in cyber-security, advanced manufacturing, healthcare and STEM fields that are unfilled in Virginia because our students are not fully prepared when we focus only on passing SOL tests. The Mecklenburg County School’s plan; developing career centers within our secondary schools, focusing on career literacy from Pre-K throughout high school, and developing critical partnerships with local business for real-world experiences, is considered one of the most comprehensive plans to achieve this in Virginia. Understand that this is a completely different vision for schools. Students in this education process engage constructively and constantly in the learning process rather than sit passively while teachers lecture and do most of the work. It is an incredible opportunity to be able to build appropriate structures for this new education process.
The question that has captured the attention of the steering committee and the community is whether this goal is achieved best with one comprehensive middle and high school complex or two. There are advantages and disadvantages to both and these have been thoroughly examined. Emotions run high on both sides. For some the greatest priority is to build two so that the facilities will be close to the individual communities that they serve. For others the emphasis should be on the availability of all programs to all students equally. We must keep in mind that we have an opportunity for unity and synergy for our students and county when we work together for the good of all. We can now be one strong county rather than a people divided by strife and competition.
It has historically been very difficult to create new programs in both schools because of limited funding and limited number of students to begin programs. Currently, students who are interested in participating in some career programs, advanced technology classes, and JROTC must make the choice to travel to the other school to do so. The six career centers planned as a central component of our 21st Century education plan were designed to function in one or be split between the two with three at one end and three at the other. Students who plan careers that fall within a career center located at the other school would need to be transported.
Fiscal responsibility to the county was the third focus of the steering committee. CRA&A worked closely with County Administrator Wayne Carter to estimate the cost of each building concept. Final figures are calculated to add $.07 in local taxes for a comprehensive center that is expected to cost around $100 million. Two facilities are estimated to cost between $140 million and $155 million, depending on whether we reuse portions of the current Park View HS facilities for the Middle School or if the middle school is rebuilt completely. This option will add to local taxes between $.12 and $.15. This cost estimate is for the building only. It does not include the cost of the land or water and sewer connections. Long term cost of maintenance, heating, cooling, and transportation were also estimated and presented showing expected operational savings for the county for one center.
All of these options give Mecklenburg County and students the opportunity to become one of the leading school divisions in the state and perhaps the nation. National business leaders have looked at our comprehensive plan for 21st Century Schools and the option to build comprehensive new buildings as the perfect synergy for a rural community, stating “This is the best return on investment (ROI) possible. You prepare students for the careers of the future and create programs that any professional parent would be proud for their child to attend.”
There is a reality yet to be considered; a reality that I as a Superintendent have focused on since conversation first began about new schools this year. The facilities constructed will be only as good as the teachers and programs that we have inside. This issue has been reflected in all of the public hearings as well. We must raise teacher and staff salaries from where they currently exist as the lowest in the region. I will propose to the School Board that we submit a plan to raise our teacher salaries by an average $2,000.00 so that they are at least average in southern Virginia. Instructional Aides, cafeteria workers, maintenance workers, school nurses, and bus drivers will also see an increase. We project that we can do this for an additional $.03 increase in taxes.
The steering committee came to a consensus that a consolidated school was the best option to meet the three criteria given for new schools. This is the recommendation that will be taken to the School Board on Tuesday evening, July 26th, at their special Board session. The nine members of the Board will vote to determine which building option to submit to the Board of Supervisors for final approval to move forward. There is no doubt that the Board vote will reflect some division about what final option will serve the community best. We need to keep in mind that either option is a win-win for us all so that we can move forward with final plans and building. It is possible that new facilities will be in place for students in August/September of 2019. This will be the most important investment for the citizens and students of Mecklenburg County for the next century. It’s time to BE BOLD and make the most of this opportunity by working together after the final decision is made on Tuesday night.