March 11, 2011
By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer
More than 75 people attended a Community Conversation on Thursday night at Magna Vista High School to voice their opinions about benefits and drawbacks of merging the Henry County and Martinsville school systems.
Near the end of the slightly more than two-hour program, representatives of small groups that had met summarized the pros and cons raised during their discussions.
Benefits mentioned included more advanced classes; more academic choices for students; one school year schedule; cost savings, for example having one administration; less travel; and variety of programs offered.
One group’s representative said there has not been enough information made public to say much about potential benefits.
Other benefits cited included: elimination of the perception of educational competition, which would make the area more attractive, and more trade skills offered could boost jobs.
Drawbacks included fewer jobs/layoffs of school employees; increased class sizes; gaps in test scores between the city and county school division; teacher pay could be affected; and any savings would not be used to benefit students’ education.
Another drawback mentioned was that if merger does not work, the systems cannot go back to the way they were. For example, if a school is closed, it can’t be reopened. Other drawbacks mentioned were the possibility of increased property taxes; people might move out of the county and city, which would reduce the tax base; education could become worse with merger; perception that all would not be equal; and coordinating differences in salaries and benefits.
The meeting began in the Magna Vista auditorium with opening statements by Bob Holsworth, a managing partner with DecideSmart, a Richmond consulting firm hired by the school systems as they consider merger, and the lead Voices Choices facilitators, Phil Holleran and Rosabelle Holmes.
Next, several small groups met in classrooms.
Members in each work group had two tasks: 1) to list the best hope and the worst fear for merger; and 2) to list the benefits and drawbacks of merger in the areas of educational opportunity, efficiency and economic development.
In the work group facilitated by Nancy Moncrief, participants raised these best hopes for merger: A merged system would be the strongest in the state, provide better opportunities for all, save money and reduce costs.
Other best hopes were more educational choices overall, such as vocational, technical and college prep; community will come together for better life for all; and sense of ownership.
Participants raised these worst fears for merger: loss of jobs; no cost savings; increased taxes; diviseness; destruction of community; lack of programs targeted to individuals; loss of history; negative effect on education; and increased costs/debt for the community.
William Scales, a county resident, said he feared the loss of history at schools. “There’s not enough information out there about cost,” he said, adding that he was aware of one school system merger that did not result in savings, and taxes increased.
Tim Hunt, minister of Rich Acres Christian Church and a father, said he hopes a merged system would be one of the strongest school systems in the state, and his greatest fears are that a merged system would tear down or tear apart the community. Brenda Vaughn said she hopes for the best for the children and cost effectiveness (saving money). Her worst fear would be tax increases, she said.
In the small work group facilitated by Veraine Randolph and Rachel Beneke, participants identified these best hopes: does occur; does not go through; best interest of children; implement and utilize best programs and procedures of both systems; all students will receive the best education that we can afford; large percentage are satisfied with the benefits of merger; smooth transition between boards, and children benefit.
Participants in that group identified these worst fears: doesn’t occur; goes through; job loss/not best for children; don’t want child to be split from current school he is attending; finding common ground among school systems/local governments; children may get hurt; lack of cooperation of boards; increase in taxes.
During that group’s discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of merger on educational opportunity, efficiency and economic development, Carmala Shively, a county resident, said she thinks the school officials should consider making Laurel Park Middle School the third high school and making Martinsville High School a middle school because MHS needs improvements. She also said doing that would help economic development in the Laurel Park area.
Shively also criticized the evening’s format, and several people in the room seemed to agree with her. She said she felt the format was not allowing participants to truly express their opinions.
She said people want to know such things as where the attendance lines will be drawn and what the savings and costs will be. “There’s not enough information to say whether people support it or not,” she said.
One man in the group said he doesn’t see how a merged system could do anything other than save money.
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