Faced with declining enrollment and aging schools — and a looming $7.2 million budget deficit — the Lynchburg School Board voted Tuesday to close one, and possibly two, of its elementary schools.
By a 5-4 vote, the board approved moving forward with closing Sandusky Elementary, closing or converting T.C. Miller Elementary, and starting the process of rezoning school boundaries in an effort to have students go to schools close to home.
In addition, the school district will request $15 million from the Lynchburg City Council to renovate Bass Elementary in order to make the “close to home” portion of the plan possible.
The decision follows years of study by outside consultants, pushback from parents concerned about any school closures, and disagreements among board members.
Tuesday’s vote, which was held during a board work session, came two weeks after the board decided at its last regular meeting to postpone a vote about closing schools. At the time, some board members expressed concern about the school-closing scenarios proposed by an outside consultant, as well as about a recommendation made by its own finance and facilities committee.
That recommendation would have closed T.C. Miller and Dearington elementaries. While each of those schools had been considered for closing by the consultant, MGT of America, none of its scenarios called for closing both of them.
Martin Day, the chairman of the committee, said at the time that those are the two most expensive schools in the district to operate.
Tuesday’s recommendation that the board close T.C. Miller and Sandusky — which followed one of MGT’s earlier scenarios — was made by Day, who is the full board’s vice chair.
Day said Tuesday that he was not going to try to move forward with the committee’s earlier proposal.
“I want to make a motion to do what I think the board needs to do at this point,” said Day, who attended the meeting via a Zoom connection due to an illness. “I hope this will help the board come together, move forward and allow the administration to begin the planning.”
Earlier in the meeting, Superintendent Crystal Edwards reiterated that she needed a decision by Nov. 1 if there is any chance of implementing the plan for the start of the 2024-25 school year.
But even after Day made his proposal, there was plenty of discussion — and even proposed amendments that completely altered the motion — before the final vote was taken. When debate about the proposal began, it was clear that board members were not completely in agreement on what should be done, or even on whether the data they were receiving was correct.
“When you go into these schools, there are no empty spaces,” board member Sharon Carter said. “It seems that these reports are thinking that these classrooms are empty.
“But now we’re going to close and repurpose T.C. Miller, we’re going to close Sandusky. What are we looking at — almost 600 students? And we’re going to put these students somewhere else?”
Carter then offered an amendment to Day’s motion: to close Fort Hill Community School, which currently hosts an alternative school, and move that program to Heritage Elementary. Carter also called for rebuilding Sandusky Elementary.
Carter’s amendment received an ovation from the audience, but after discussion, it failed 6-3.
Still, there was more maneuvering ahead. Board member Farid Jalil offered an amendment that stated if the district could find additional money that could allow for one less elementary school to be closed, then T.C. Miller could remain open. Jalil said it would allow the community to put together a “save our schools” type of tax increase measure to be put on the 2024 ballot.
“That is something a community can rally around,” Jalil said. “I’ve seen it work in other communities.”
Several other board members, including chair Atul Gupta and Anthony Andrews, commended Jalil on what he proposed, but his amendment also failed.
Once the vote on the original motion was brought to the floor, Jalil voted yes, as did Day, Gupta and board members Christian DePaul and Letitia Lowery. Andrews, Carter and members Gloria Presto and Randy Trost voted no.
Day’s motion and the actual vote came after Edwards and Gupta addressed a number of emails and other communications received from the public since the board decided during its Sept. 5 regular meeting to delay making a decision on closures.
Although the boardroom was full of concerned residents, most wearing T-shirts or holding posters stating which schools they didn’t want to see closed, public comments are not allowed during a work session. Gupta said to make up for this, he would address several questions before moving ahead to the facilities discussion.
He said the question he received the most was whether the innovation schools, which are currently based at T.C. Miller and Dearington, would be shut down.
Edwards said that was never considered. The location of the innovation schools might change, but if anything, she only wants to see the programs expanded.
“I’ve said this before, that while I love buildings, walls and facilities, it’s the people, people, people and connections and relationships that teachers have with children that makes it special,” Edwards said.
Edwards added that whatever plan was put forward and whichever schools were closed, she does not want any children to move more than one time.