March 13, 2011
By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer
A majority of Martinsville City Council members said they think merging county and city schools is an idea worth pursuing, but one expressed concerned that fear and misconceptions will thwart discussions.
Martinsville Mayor Kim Adkins said she has heard “some individuals are trying to create” the fears and emotions that were present in previous merger discussions.
Those fears, she said, include county taxes going up, changing attendance lines to force Collinsville residents to attend Martinsville schools, and closing Martinsville High School.
All those are unfounded and built on residents’ fear of the unknown, Adkins said.
“I think the whole purpose of school merger is to avoid a tax increase,” Adkins said. Additionally, the 2004 study “made it clear” that a blended system would maintain the current open enrollment policy, she said.
Also, it seems unlikely that MHS would close because of its central location, Adkins said.
Fear “typically detracts from a situation. It could possibly halt discussions. I am surprised that started again, and I think the majority of the population views those fears as unfounded,” she said.
With respect to a merger, “the heavy lifting is already done. Since the 2004 study, schools in the city and county were closed and efficiencies made in both divisions,” Adkins said. “It makes sense now to merge to maintain quality without raising taxes.”
Adkins attended one of the meetings Thursday and thought the event was a “good venue for people to come out give their opinions in a structured manner.”
Residents were asked not only to list the “bright spots” of a possible merger, but also their “fears and how they view the economic impact. I thought it was informative,” she said.
Since then, Adkins said she has “had so many phone calls and discussions with so many individuals who view the positive impact of joining our schools.” The feedback from both city and county residents who have some affiliation with the city by having worked or attended school in the city has been positive, Adkins said.
Adkins, who supports continued consideration of a merger, said she is looking forward to a report that will be presented during a joint meeting on March 28. The report will include comments from residents at the meetings and information collected from surveys to school staff and faculty.
People attending the Community Conversations on Thursday were divided into small groups for discussions. City Councilman Gene Teague, who attended Thursday’s meeting at Martinsville High School, said a majority those in his group were supportive of considering a merger.
“There were some concerns” expressed at the meeting, including “fear of the unknown, name change, how it would impact the school system and what impact it would have on facilities and jobs,” Teague said.
A majority, however, were “interested in improving the education system and putting kids in better position to compete,” he said.
Many people at the meeting said merging the school divisions would offer more opportunities, Teague said. “I left with a sense that the folks there felt it is best to go to next step” of gathering and disseminating details, he said.
Teague also thinks that is a logical next step. He acknowledges “there are a couple of big issues we have to get past,” he said of funding equity and “how to provide an arrangement” that treats city and county taxpayers fairly.
Both “could be contentious discussions, but I don’t think either issue is insurmountable. I hope we can sit down and have those conversations and not be divisive,” he said.
Other concerns include the composition of school boards to ensure parents in both localities are represented, Teague said.
“We also need to make sure we do this right” with respect to facilities and strive to make sure classrooms and schools do not become overcrowded, he said. “At the end of the day, we have got to figure out how to improve the system at a cost that’s fair to everybody.”
Teague supports studying merger, “and I hope people be open minded and talk about the options.”
Martinsville Vice Mayor Kimble Reynolds said after the Community Conversation he is keeping an open mind about the possibility of merger. Economics plays a role, but what’s foremost to him is quality of education, he said.
“It was good to see so many people in attendance” and to listen to them expressing and prioritizing their opinions, he said.
He could not be reached for additional comments Friday.
Councilman Mark Stroud said he does not think residents at Thursday’s meeting were adverse to merging, but “overwhelmingly there was concern or worry about loss of personnel” and the negative impact that would have on students.
There also were “a lot of positive comments about how a merger could benefit the children and our communities, but I didn’t hear anything that was very contentious or anything that surprised me,” Stroud said.
“Certainly, I would like to go forward” and have “facts and figures to support any savings to localities. That’s very important to me and I think to the general public as well. I think we should go forward until we at least have those facts and figures,” he said.
“I was glad to see people turn out at the meeting no matter what their opinion was,” Stroud added.
Councilman Danny Turner said he left the Thursday meeting “with the sense that everybody for the most part realized we have a limited amount of resources and want to do the best job we can with them.”
There is “no reason to have two administrations,” Turner said. He supports a plan that would include one administration and three high schools.
He added he was surprised by some of the comments “about the county having to bail out the city’s financial mistakes. I didn’t feel those comments were completely justified,” he said. “There may be some misinformation” in the community.
There also are “some in the community who view this (merger) as the first step to reversion, but it’s not,” Turner said. It is a way to keep the tax rates down while improving education, he added.
“The important part is that we use our resources as best we can to provide education,” Turner said. “We need to consider this consolidation as a way to keep the schools at the level they are.”
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