Regardless of whether you believe they are to blame for this situation, you have to feel for the School Board. It's easy to gossip with neighbors or air grievances on social media about the "obvious" fix for the shameful predicament in which we find ourselves. It's easy to write a blog post blasting the mismanagement by those we have elected to guide our county, then close the laptop and go on about the business of life. But our School Board does not have the luxury of walking away from this issue and I do not envy them. After listening to the pleas of parents and students at the hearing last night, the only thing that is obvious is that no matter the eventual outcome, there will be pain.
All of the School Board members were in attendance at the hearing, along with Superintendent Dr. Benson. Supervisors Laura Sellers and Wendy Maurer were also at the hearing, although both were simply audience members and did not speak. The crowd itself came in at around 150-175, which was a good turnout but seemed a little lower than the previous evening's gathering (which was abruptly cancelled due to a power outage at Forge.)
The hearing began with a brief presentation of the options by Dr. Benson. He did make one very important comment about the timing of the SB vote. The next SB session on March 14th will be informational only. It has been reported that the vote would occur at the March 14th meeting however, the vote will not take place until March 28th. BTW will attend both meetings to get you the pertinent information from each.
At this point, the School Board ascended the stage and the hearing began. All of the SB members made opening statements to the crowd. Notable comments came from Irene Egan, who implored speakers to keep things civil and not make any disparaging remarks about any of Stafford's schools or teachers. Christopher Connelly made an excellent point that there is a "growth problem" in Stafford and asked that everyone in attendance remain involved even after this redistricting. He asked that people continue to hold all of their elected officials accountable, a sentiment that we at BTW heartily endorse.
Then the comments from the public began, with each individual being allowed 3 minutes to speak his or her mind. There were emotional pleas, rational suggestions and even some flat out criticism. Many neighborhoods were represented but by far the most speakers came from Embrey Mill, Autumn Ridge and the Amyclae/Berkshire area. Of course, all of these speakers had their own personal stories but there was a common theme for each neighhood.
Embrey Mill: Again and again, these speakers discussed proximity and safety as reasons to stay districted at Forge. The 1.8 mile distance from the neighborhood to Forge is a major consideration for these families. Also, the fact that the main roads that will eventually connect the neighborhood to Garrisonville but are not yet built causes safety issues for high school students traveling Stafford's winding back roads to North. These residents also pointed out that by moving EMNorth, the SB would in effect be creating an island of North students surrounded by Forge students.
The most disturbing statements that came from this group referenced how attacked they feel by the rest of Stafford County. EM resident Carolyn Grant said she feels the "neighborhood is being vilified" for issues that started well before Embrey Mill came along. EM resident Jason Moore, who just moved to the community in August, said that there are many military service members in the neighborhood like himself who moved to the area for the great schools. It concerns BTW greatly to think that these individuals who protect and serve us all feel like criminals for simply choosing to live in our county. These people are our neighbors and should be welcomed, not blamed for a situation they did not cause.
Autumn Ridge/Amyclae/Berkshire: These residents arguments were something of a direct contrast to the EM crowd. This group's main argument is that it is unfair to move established neighborhoods out of a school to make room for families that do not yet live in Stafford (EM). Many of these families pointed out the importance of peer continuity, especially when so many are military families whose children have had to deal with a lot of upheaval in their short lives. These residents also raise the issue of safety, these students would have to travel the same dangerous back roads that connect to North as the Embrey Mill residents.
By far, the most emotional plea of the night came from Forge student and Amyclae resident Noelle Briggs. She has a unique perspective as a student dealing with the over-crowding at Forge on a daily basis. She acknowledged that dealing with so many kids at the school is hard and that this redistricting does need to happen. However, she asked that the board remember that these students are people and not numbers. I am certain I was not the only one with a tear in her eye when Ms. Briggs became emotionally overwhelmed discussing her earnest desire for her brother, a current 8th grader, to attend high school with her at Forge.
There were some other salient points brought up at the hearing. One gentleman, Chris from Augustine North called out the SB for not including APU 159 Austin Ridge in any of the options, which was apparently widely discussed at the community work session in January. He also pointed out that the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is not a sacred document but a living one and can be changed to prioritize High School 6. Hear, hear to that.
Quite a few audience members expressed concern over the suggestion to close the Commonwealth's Governors School site at Forge. This option was raised at the SB work session but was not discussed at any length. If this is indeed something the SB is considering,
the information regarding it has not been made public.
There were numerous pleas to reconsider the sibling policy, something that the SB has acknowledged they are willing to discuss. Robin Hawkins, an Autumn Ridge resident, made a very impassioned argument for grandfathering siblings by pointing out how difficult is it for families to split their resources and time between 2 high schools. She pointed out that by putting families in this situation, you are basically asking them to choose which child to support. As a very involved school volunteer, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to determine which high school and by extension, which child deserved my limited volunteer time.
Many people brought up the fact that this redistricting is not considering some of the most common sense moves. Moving the Stafford Lakes neighborhood on route 17 came up multiple times as an obvious solution since it would move approximately 400 students out of Forge, the target number set by the SB. A few brought up the fact that this redistricting should be a larger one not just focused on Forge, but all the county high schools. It was also pointed out that any changes now should go hand in glove with potential future redistricting when HS6 is built. No one wants to go through the pain of being redistricted twice in a 6-7 year period of time.
Finally, some food for thought from Arbor Glen resident Jeff Kradowitz (sp?). Mr. Kradowitz was a very vocal member of the audience at the Rockhill district Town Hall meeting. He disagreed with Chairwoman Hazard's opening remark that all Stafford County schools are great. He postulated that if this were indeed true, there would be no difficulty associated with this or any other redistricting. He said that the truth is that some of the schools are better than others and pleaded for the SB to bring parity to all schools. BTW has pointed out a fact that he restated, that Stafford County is the 9th richest county IN THE ENTIRE U.S. Surely, a county as wealthy as ours can find a way to solve these issues.
As always, we encourage you to contact your SB and BoS elected officials and let your opinion be heard. It is important to remember that the SB can do ANYTHING, they do not need to stick to any of the options currently under consideration. They could still come up with something completely different. By remaining uninvolved, you may find your community has been redistricted while you were busy doing other things. Find contact info HERE.
Here are the remaining important dates:
SB Informational Meeting - 3/14
SB Action Meeting (vote) - 3/28
Student notification: March/April 2017
Implementation of redistricting: School Year 2017-18
Were you at the public hearing? What are your thoughts?