March 11, 2011
By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer
School officials have said merging Henry County and Martinsville school divisions is an option to save money, but many people attending a “Community Conversation” meeting Thursday at Bassett High School expressed concern about assuming debt, increased taxes and a loss of control.
However, other participants said they thought merger might mean more opportunities for a wider array of students.
Before the discussions on whether to proceed with a merger study got under way, the roughly 80 participants were divided into four groups which met in as many rooms. Facilitators led the discussions after reviewing a list of ground rules, including the fact that the discussions were not public hearings but an opportunity to make a good faith effort to address the issue of a school merger.
Similar meetings were held at Magna Vista and Martinsville high schools at the same time.
After introducing themselves, each participant at Bassett High also gave a brief summary of whether they had attended school locally or had children or grandchildren in local schools. Most had children enrolled or adult children who had graduated from the county school division. Others said they had graduated or had adult children who teach in city or county schools.
In one of the groups, when participants were asked their “best hope” of what a merger would accomplish, Kim Robertson said she hoped a merger would offer better opportunities for courses and different kinds of programs for students.
Jo Ellen Hylton, who is principal of Axton Elementary School, said students continuing to achieve at their highest potential was her best hope, while Judy Edmonds said she hoped academics would be “as strong or stronger” as it currently is.
Lisa Seay said she hoped Martinsville would revert to town status before a merger occurred, while Reed Creek District Supervisor Tommy Slaughter said the issue was two-fold.
“It all comes down to dollars and cents and academics,” he said.
Others, like Collinsville District Supervisor Joe Bryant, said more information was needed before he knew how a merger might benefit the county.
Blackberry District Supervisor Jim Adams said he attended the meeting to gain input and detail, as did Merlin Winger.
Tim Fulcher said he hoped to “see the will of the people done.”
Biggest fears included Rhonda Hodges’ concern that the decision “would not be data driven. I think we really need to know” details such as the economic benefit, efficiency and class sizes.
Seay said if the city did not revert to town status, “it would not pay taxes to the county” and county taxpayers would pay more for education under a merged system. Winger shared a similar sentiment.
Hylton said her biggest fear is “that we lose focus of what is best for the kids, not adults.”
Fulcher said individual schools would lose their identities.
A study in 2004 estimated the cost savings of merging the school divisions at nearly $1 million, “which is not a lot when you consider the numbers we’re working with,” Bryant said of the school divisions’ budgets.
Henry County’s current school budget is about $68.4 million and Martinsville’s is about $23.2 million. Neither figure includes the nutrition budgets.
Bryant also said a disparity in teachers’ pay between the two divisions is a concern, as is the possible loss of personnel.
Other concerns identified were the initial cost of start-up following a merger, possible longer bus rides, increased class sizes and special needs students’ issues not being addressed.
When asked to imagine the impact a merger would have on educational opportunities, efficiency and economic development, Bryant said, “We don’t want to imagine. We’re not here to imagine. We’re here to talk about the details.”
Winger said he felt participants were “being led” with questions to show the positive impact of merging, but “we are not being asked what our opinions are.”
Others said they could not offer any input about city schools because they were not familiar with them or their class offerings.
Participants also asked why the schools should merge.
“If we can make it (education) better” with a merger, “why not make it better now?” another participant asked.
The discussion then turned again to fears and/or concerns with merger. Students adapting to change, larger class sizes and changing attendance zones were cited.
Winger said his biggest fear was that a small focus group — the 80 or so people attending the event in Bassett on a rainy Thursday night — would be responsible for deciding whether the community “wants a merger or not.”
Input gathered from participants at the three meetings Thursday, along with survey results from school staff and faculty, will be compiled and presented to the school boards during a joint meeting on March 28, according to Kathy Rogers, Henry County School Board chairman.
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