Merger steps mulled

March 14, 2011

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Feedback from “Community Conversations” has some Henry County and Martinsville school board members ready to take merger studies to the next level, while others are waiting on a report to be presented later this month.

Henry County School Board Chairman Kathy Rogers is among those who are waiting to make up their minds on studying merger until information from Thursday’s “Community Conversation” meetings and staff/faculty surveys is compiled and presented to a joint meeting of the two school boards March 28.

Rogers said that information will help her decide whether to continue with the next step of considering a merger.

Terri Flanagan, Horsepasture District school board member, said the compiled information will give members a “better picture of what people want.”

Regardless of how they proceed, “we’ve got to remember to keep the kids in the forefront. This is about education” even though other areas, including finances, are considerations, Flanagan said.

Iriswood District board member Curtis Millner said he attended Thursday’s conversation at Martinsville High School, where “it appeared to me the majority would like to proceed with the study.”

He said he supports waiting “until all the information is in to read the reviews and then make a decision based on a majority of opinions.”

Millner said he heard one person attending the meeting at Martinsville High School express concern that the school would “lose its name and mascot.”

But, he said, neither of the two county high schools could absorb all of MHS’s students.

“We would probably have to have three high schools” if the systems merged, Millner said.

He also noted that many people attending the meeting “were looking for facts and figures, but they are not available until we decide whether to proceed. We can’t put the cart before the horse.”

Blackberry District board member Rudy Law said he was pleased with participation and the diversity of opinions offered at the meetings. There were about 75 people at Magna Vista, 80 at Bassett and 100 at Martinsville high schools.

On whether to proceed with a study, “I’m just thinking it all over. I’m not committed either way. I do know this: I think we either need to do it or not do it. I don’t think we need to go somewhere in the middle,” Law said.

He added he has heard some talk “of just merging the administration” with one superintendent and one administration.

“I guess I’m not convinced residents want to do this yet,” Law said. However, “I’m not convinced they don’t want to. I’m still digesting” the responses from Thursday, he added.

Henry County School Board Vice Chairman Joe DeVault, the member-at-large board member, said group sentiments at Thursday’s meetings were “about half and half. There were pros and cons both ways. I think we really don’t know all of the positives and negatives until we begin to see some facts and figures.”

DeVault said it will be “interesting to look at the statements” at the joint meetings and gauge “residents’ seriousness of proceeding.”

“I think long term, down the road, the best interest for the entire area can be served by merger, but I want to wait to see the results of statements and then look at specifics of how merger would occur before I take a firm stand either way,” he said.

Reed Creek District board member Betsy Mattox said she also “would like to see the compiled data from the meetings, and also from the staff, before I make a decision.”

She said she was “impressed with two things” during Thursday’s meetings. “One was the diversity of the group,” she said, explaining that grandparents and parents with children in elementary, middle and high schools were represented.

“I also was impressed with the fact that I think everyone was very gracious. I think they tried their best,” Mattox said. “I think they were definitely concerned about what’s best for their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

After the meeting at Magna Vista, Ridgeway District board member Charles Speakman responded to concerns that teaching positions would be eliminated if the systems merged.

He said it is not fair to assume that fewer teachers would be needed because a merged system would serve the same number of students.

Speakman said Friday he thinks a study should be pursued.

Jim Johnson, chairman of Martinsville School Board, said he thought Thursday’s events were “very well attended, very well run and I think some good input was gathered.”

The comments he heard “for the most part” were “very positive,” Johnson said. None of the participants in the groups he visited said “‘No, we’re not going to do this.’”

He hopes to pursue merging and would like to begin by studying several areas, including school board membership, the cost structure and what impact a merger would have on federal, state and local funding, Johnson said.

“But the most important need is to find the best way to educate the 10,000 students in this community. That’s what it’s all about,” Johnson said.

Bill Manning, vice chairman of the city school board, said he supports moving to the next level of considering a merger.

Response at Thursday’s meetings, he said, was “what I had expected ... good input from community. I heard some opposition and a lot of questions, but no surprises.”

“I think we have to go to the next step and see what all the data tells us,” Manning said.

City board member Nancy Baker said she was “well pleased with the responses in the group I attended” at Bassett High School.

A majority of those in the group seemed to think a merger would offer the “opportunity for more challenging classes” and a “more rigorous curriculum,” Baker said.

Although responding to two governing bodies would be a challenge, Baker said a single school division would alleviate confusion and comparisons of the two school divisions when people move here. She supports moving forward with the plan to update the 2004 study.

City board member Carolyn McCraw said the meetings were “a great idea and certainly part of the process that we include the public” when deciding whether to merge.

Like many in her group at the meeting, McCraw said she felt “more detail, more logistics” are needed.

She also believes both school boards “need to move forward and come up with a plan to find out more specifics,” including financial savings, staffing and “primarily what will be the benefit to our children in the long run,” she said.

“I do think we should go to next step to come up with a plan” and then hold public hearings to get public input, McCraw said.

City school board member Robert Williams did not return a call for comment.


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