At Thursday night’s Board of Education work session, Superintendent Lyle Ailshie presented the idea of “assuming the responsibility or whatever the right term is, for Colonial Heights Middle School,” repeatedly emphasizing that it was not a “takeover” of the school and could only work with agreement of county officials.
“This is a bold strategy. I realize it,” Ailshie told the board, which was receptive to the idea but could not vote because the meeting was a work session. “It could happen almost immediately.”
BOE member Susan Lodal said it is “an option that is at least worth pursuing a discussion with our counterparts in the county.”
Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie, reached by phone after the city BOE meeting, said all that county officials have heard about such a plan was a recent but non-detailed mention of city interest in Colonial Heights Middle by city BOE President Randy Montgomery to county BOE Chairman Dan Wells.
“Interesting. I think that’s all I can say. That’s interesting,” Yennie said. “Certainly there needs to be better communication between the city and county.”
Wells, also reached by phone, said “there’s still a lot of conversations to be had relative” to the proposal.
“As far as for Colonial Heights folks, that would be somewhat of a stabilizing factor,” Wells said.
The school is already pretty much surrounded by city limits, Ailshie said, adding that he believes the proposal would be positive for the community, help provide needed middle school space for the city for newly annexed areas, and help lessen the operational burden of the county system, which is facing a $2.5 million budget shortfall even if $2 million in fund balance is used toward the 2013-14 budget.
County BOE Vice Chairman Jack Bales said he hadn’t heard of the specific proposal Ailshie outlined Thursday night but said the idea might have merit.
“I think it’s important for us to sit down and talk about what options are doable and work to make the transition from one system to another as seamless as possible for the community,” Bales said in a phone interview.
Ailshie said the proposal could help with the county’s budget woes.
“We want to do our part by serving them,” Ailshie said of city residents in Colonial Heights. “That move could stimulate some additional housing development in that area.” He said it also makes sense since students from the city’s only school in that area, Adams Elementary, are zoned for Robinson Middle School but are much closer to Colonial Heights Middle.
Ailshie said the idea is for the city to assume operation of the school starting this fall, leaving the faculty and staff as is and paying the county pay scale for one school year before making any changes.
“It’s already at the end of June. It would be hard to change that (current staff and faculty) at this point,” Ailshie said. “We can work out a transition plan.”
Aside from an absolute change in school ownership, options include a contract between the two systems or simply moving operation from the county to city system, he said.
Changes would come later, including employees going on the city pay plan and facility improvement in three to five years.
Existing city students in the school could remain, as could non-city students for a period of time, Ailshie said. However, when the non-city students finished eighth grade, they could continue as normal to South High School, while the city students could go to Dobyns-Bennett High School.
Non-city students also might have the option of going to Sullivan Gardens K-8 or a proposed county middle school at either Sullivan North High School or Sullivan South High.
Closing one of those schools and making it a middle school for both the North and South zones is a scenario the county BOE was considering earlier this year.
However, the county BOE agreed to delay that decision six months, until around October.
“I think it would fit into our long-range needs because we do need additional middle school space,” Ailshie said, in reference to increasing student populations at Robinson and Sevier middle schools.
“We are going to have to have a facility solution of some sort anyway,” Ailshie said.
BOE member Andy Hall expressed support for the proposal, and BOE member Carrie Upshaw said renovating or building a new school at Colonial Heights “seems like it would be a very good solution” to the city’s middle school overcrowding problem.