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School consolidation assessed
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Sunday, November 24, 2013

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Henry County School Board member Curtis Millner Sr. says he feels consolidation of the county schools with those in Martinsville is “inevitable.”

But his fellow board member Rudy Law says while consolidation may benefit both the county and city, he does not think there is the “political will” to combine the schools unless it is forced as part of the city’s reversion to a town.

Last week, Martinsville City Council received a reversion study that included an updated study on consolidating the schools. Both studies contained information; neither made a recommendation on town status or a single school system.

Millner, of the Iriswood District, has said several times previously that consolidation of the school systems will occur.

“I just hope that all concerned parties can get together to sit down and figure out how to make it work rather than fight something that is going to happen anyhow,” he said. “I think perhaps a neutral party from outside should sit down with members of local governing bodies and school boards and figure out how to bring this (about).”

The only thing that would prevent the inevitability of consolidation is if a large industry employing 2,000 or more people were to locate here, Millner said, adding that he thinks that is unlikely.

“I hope with the combining of schools, more programs could be made available to all children of Martinsville and Henry County,” Millner said. “Whatever we have that is successful, let’s make it available to all students who desire it.”

As examples, he mentioned the county system has “a very successful horticulture program at Magna Vista,” and JROTC is not available at Martinsville High School.

Millner said he believes merging the school divisions would save money through such things as reducing central office costs, student transportation and possibly the need to replace John Redd Smith Elementary by moving its students to other schools where space is available. Part of the process should involve realigning attendance zones to make maximum use of available space in schools, he said.

Millner urged critics of possible consolidation not to use “scare tactics” and to “go on facts, not emotions.”

“I don’t see a large number of people being forced out of a job” if consolidation occurred, he said. “We (the county schools) have a lot of people near or past eligible-age to retire.”

The reversion report, which did not make a recommendation on whether the school divisions should be consolidated, gave six possible options for consolidating staffs, with savings projected to range from $1,216,159 to $3,766,532.

The report also said there may be cost savings from integrated services in the areas of student transportation, operation and maintenance, school nutrition, fiscal affairs and others. The report also projected additional state aid through the Consolidation Incentive Program.

Rudy Law, who represents the Blackberry District on the county school board, said, “Quite frankly, I don’t believe the political will is there” to consolidate the school divisions unless it is forced as a result of Martinsville’s reversion to town status.

“The last time, the (Henry County) board of supervisors put an end to the discussion on it,” he said. He was referring to March 2011 when a majority of the members of the board of supervisors said it was time to stop discussing a possible merger of the school divisions. They cited residents' concerns, including the potential for tax increases, larger classes and slim savings.

Law said there are pluses and minuses to consolidating the school divisions. One of the challenges, he said, is that representatives of county government and the county school division would be looking out for their group’s best interests — as would their city counterparts.

“I think that’s the real stumbling block ... who wins, who loses, who pays for this and that?” he said.

“My feeling is it probably would benefit the entire community of Martinsville and Henry County” to consolidate the school divisions, but that it would cost the taxpayers of Henry County more than the taxpayers of Martinsville to do it, Law said.

According to the reversion study, if Martinsville reverted to a town and consolidated its school system with Henry County’s, town residents could see a significant decrease in taxes while Henry County residents’ tax rate could rise.

Law also said many issues would have to be looked at in consolidation, such as governance, pay scale, transportation, curriculum, attendance zones and facilities, the possibility of school closure(s) with the resulting “shrinking pains” and public opposition. If there are discrepancies between the divisions and everyone wants to raise the standard to the best level that either system offers, the costs will go up, he added.

Most members of the city and county school boards either could not be reached for comment Friday or said they had not read or thoroughly read the studies.

Francis Zehr, who represents the Ridgeway District on the county school board and is a retired teacher, was among those who said they had not studied the report thoroughly.

But, he said, “it’s up to Martinsville City Council to decide if they want to revert. The next step is theirs. I will respect their decision. Then we’ll have to go from there,” he added.

Joe DeVault, member-at-large on the county school board and board chairman, said he needed more information before commenting.

Tom Auker, Blackberry District member-elect to the county school board, said he had not read the report. However, “Like I said in the campaign, I’m open to dialogue,” he added.

Henry County Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton stated in an email earlier last week: “At this point, I haven’t had an opportunity to thoroughly review the results from the study, so I cannot comment on the specifics of the report. However, I will say that the two school divisions already work collaboratively in order to maximize educational opportunities for the students in our community.

“Ultimately, we want all students in Martinsville city and Henry County to be successful. Regardless of any decisions that are made moving forward, we must ensure that students in our community continue to receive a high-quality educational experience.”

Martinsville School Board member Rives Coleman said: “It’s out of my hands. It’s a city council decision. It’s not my decision.”

 

 
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