After about three hours of discussion and public comment Tuesday evening, the Lynchburg school board unanimously moved to pause talks about a controversial proposal that could close two elementary schools, and to revisit the topic in two weeks at an upcoming work session.
The board continued debating how to address the challenges faced by the district, as many of its schools are in need of serious renovations, while the city is facing declining enrollment. Over the last several years, the division has worked with consultants to determine the best path forward, which resulted in four proposed scenarios for closing and consolidating some of the city’s 11 elementary schools.
At a meeting last week, the school board’s facilities and finance committee made a recommendation that did not hew to any of the scenarios: to close Dearington and T.C. Miller elementary schools, which are both innovation schools that draw students from across the district.
They’re also the two most expensive schools in the district to operate, said Martin Day, chairman of the committee.
“It seems sensible to me to reduce the capacity that is most expensive,” he said.
The division is facing an impending budget deficit of $7.2 million next year, said board chair Atul Gupta. This is largely due to wage increases, and the use of $3.2 million in COVID-era funding to fund additional staffing positions and pay raises — money that is about to run out. The city council also cut school funding during those years of federal COVID money.
The $7.2 million figure was not a factor at the beginning of the school study process, school staff said, but it became apparent later on.
During discussion on Tuesday, board members suggested working again with MGT of America, the consultant that developed the four scenarios, but this time giving MGT that $7.2 million figure to work with to develop scenarios that would cover the impending budget deficit. The most savings that the division could get out of the four original plans that MGT presented was just over $5 million.
School board member Christian DePaul initially made a motion to accept Day’s committee proposal to close T.C. Miller and Dearington as a starting point, and to send that recommendation on to the city council, which will make the final decision. However, he withdrew the motion in favor of returning to MGT with the $7.2 million figure to work with.
Member Randy Trost added that he could not support a motion to close two schools without knowing for certain if the division would get the necessary $15 million from the Lynchburg City Council to support a related capacity increase at Bass Elementary. He said he did not want to rush a decision and supported going back to MGT with a firm dollar figure to work with.
The question ultimately comes down to finances, some school officials and city council members have said.
“Nobody wants to close those schools. We’re being backed into a corner,” Trost said. “If the funds are not there to do it, I’m not sure what else we can do.”
Community members and parents continued Tuesday night to raise concerns about the plans.
“It’s not about the bottom line. It’s about the future,” said Beth Pallard, a city resident with two of her three children attending T.C. Miller.
The public comment period, normally allotted 30 minutes, was extended by 50 minutes at Tuesday’s meeting.
Of the dozens who spoke — including a group of students from T.C. Miller — advocates for keeping the innovation schools open said the programming at the two schools helps raise well-rounded students and offers opportunities to kids that are not found elsewhere. This type of school also offers parents a more flexible choice in where to educate their children, they said, as enrollment is not contingent on ZIP code.
Parents urged the board not to put finances first, and said that more time for thoughtful consideration and problem-solving should be taken.
Rachel Rosales, the parent of a Dearington student, said she had experienced the benefits of Dearington’s diverse and inclusive environment, which she cited as one of the school’s most important qualities.
Lynn Forth, whose son attends T.C. Miller, suggested looking into solar installations on school properties, which would cut energy costs at the schools while simultaneously providing learning opportunities for students. Solar initiatives are already used in other school districts in Virginia and elsewhere, for these same reasons, she said.
School board member Farid Jalil encouraged that way of thinking.
“If nothing changes, this is the hard decision,” he said of potential school closures. He praised the idea of solar as one way to bring in more revenue but said one move like that was probably not enough. The hard decision only has to be made if no other options are made available, or are found viable, he said.
Greg Barry, whose children went through the Lynchburg school system, urged the board to approve the hybrid plan brought from the finance and facilities committee.
“The problem is, many people here have emotional ties to their schools. I understand that,” he said. “But cannot these programs be moved to another school? It’s not about a school building. It’s about the education that they receive, and that has got to be the priority.”
Superintendent Crystal Edwards said if a plan were to be implemented by the fall of 2024, the start of next school year, the board would have to reach a decision to recommend to the city council no later than Nov. 1. However, a 2024 implementation date is not required if the board opts to take more time considering the situation and potential plans.
School board member Gloria Preston said that based on public input, it would be wise of the board to spend more time having conversations and seeking practical solutions and alternative ideas.
Sharon Carter, another board member, said she wanted to check the division’s unitary status — how far it has come in addressing the effects of past racial segregation — before proceeding with these other steps. She also suggested looking at acreage on each school campus to see whether costs could be adjusted by altering some boundaries.
“We have a lot more to do,” she said.
In the meantime, the board encouraged community members to continue offering viable solutions and ideas that might help keep T.C. Miller and Dearington open.