March 11, 2011
By AMANDA BUCK - Bulletin Staff Writer
A wide range of opinions about merging the city and Henry County school divisions was expressed Thursday during a community meeting at Martinsville High School.
The point of the meeting was not to reach a consensus on whether the two school systems should become one. Instead, the “Community Conversation” was designed to allow people to voice their thoughts on whether merger is an idea worth pursuing.
About 100 people attended the meeting at MHS. They were divided into five groups, each directed by a facilitator. Facilitators asked participants to list their best hope and worst fear about merger; to list benefits and drawbacks of merger in terms of efficiency, educational opportunity and economic development; and to identify what they consider the most important benefits and drawbacks.
Several people said they hope the decision about whether to merge will be an informed one.
J.C. Richardson, a graduate of Albert Harris High School whose children graduated from Martinsville High School, hopes that “adequate, definitive information” will be available so that an informed decision can be made.
Emma Beneke, a Martinsville High School graduate, hopes officials will “make a careful, informed decision” that will, in the long run, lead to “an increase, not decrease, in teaching staff.”
Others’ biggest hope is that a merger would benefit students.
Bill Bullins, a graduate of Drewry Mason High School, hopes merger would create “a more efficient system and more educational opportunities for our students.”
Sharon Hodge, who lives in the city, owns property in the county and sent her children to private school, said she hopes a merger would mean “other parents don’t feel they have to do the same” to give their children a quality education.
Many of the participants’ biggest fears were the opposite of the hopes.
Beneke said her worst fear is that officials “will make a decision without conducting an unbiased cost-benefit analysis that takes into account human needs.”
Bullins fears the decision will be based on what’s best for adults rather than students.
Richardson, noting the large minority population in the city schools, said he fears decisions will be made without ethnic diversity and diverse input.
Monty Ridenhour, a city resident, said that as a relative newcomer to the area, he has sensed a long-time tension between the city and county. He fears that sentiment might stand in the way of a merger or of an open-minded evaluation, he said.
Paula Burnette, former Iriswood District representative on the Henry County Board of Supervisors, said she too fears that long-term “divisiveness” between the city and county will get in the way of an examination of merging the systems.
Others focused on the direct effects on students.
Tia Stone, a Henry County Schools graduate and guidance counselor at Martinsville High School, said her worst fear is that class sizes might increase and student-teacher ratios decrease.
Lisa Anderson, who has three children in the city schools, said she fears that a “big shuffling” of teachers, staff and administrators could cause instability for students.
Several people saw possible benefits and drawbacks going different ways, depending on how the merger was handled. Jim Beard of Martinsville, who has two children in the city schools, said a merger could lead to expanded course offerings and more opportunities for magnet programs.
On the other hand, “If economics takes over, I could see programs abandoned,” he said, adding later that merger “could be used as an excuse to cut budgets willy-nilly.”
Joan Montgomery, retired principal of Patrick Henry Elementary School in Martinsville, said a benefit to students could be expanded curriculum. But students could suffer if talented staff members were lost to job cuts, she said.
Job losses emerged as one of the most common concerns among the group facilitated by Wyatt Jones. At the same time, many in the group hoped a merger could improve the quality of the schools, which could lead to a better quality work force that would attract businesses and create jobs.
That could encourage more young people to stay in the area after they graduate, said Beard and Deborah Davis, a Henry County resident.
“If the schools are better, people will come here,” Davis said.
At the same time, “Bad schools are bad for business,” Beard said, speculating that if the merger wasn’t done right, it could harm economic development.
Others, such as Michelle Holland-Johnson, said a merger could cut down on commute times for some county students. Holland, whose son goes to Mt. Olivet Elementary School, said schools in Martinsville would be closer to her home.
As they compiled their final list of top benefits and drawbacks, the members of Jones’ group found many shared sentiments.
“Everyone is extremely concerned about the loss of talent” if layoffs were to occur, Davis said.
“It looks to me like job losses and business staying are the main concerns” that came out of their group, Holland-Johnson said.
All opinions gathered Thursday will be compiled and submitted to the two school boards ahead of their joint meeting on March 28.
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