Sunday, January 29, 2023

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

A brand new $67M high school for just 238-564 students? Really?

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We’re certainly glad that at least a majority of school board members demonstrated both fiscal responsibility and common sense this week.

The question was how many students should be moved in implementing the new school attendance zones, specifically between Southern and Eastern to the new high school, Southeast, that was built explicitly to reduce overcrowding at the other schools.

Specifically, the issue was whether to allow rising seniors to finish out their high school careers where they are now, rather than being transferred to the new school if their residences are located within the new Southeast attendance zone – or, by implication, whether to make the exemption broader, at least to juniors and possibly sophomores, as well.

It seems like a pretty obvious choice to us, but the seniors-only exemption barely prevailed on a 4-3 vote.

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Commendations to school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves, veteran Patsy Simpson, Donna Westbrooks, and new member Dan Ingle, who voted to limit the exception for the “seniors-only.”

The dissenters – new vice chairman Ryan Bowden, and new members Charles Parker and Chuck Marsh – apparently wanted at least seniors and juniors to be exempted.

In fact, Bowden even questioned and seemed to float the possibility of a phased-in approach that would have added new students only one grade level at a time – i.e., freshmen only next year. In an interview with the newspaper later, he said he was raising the topic only in response to a constituent request.

However, some of his comments at least suggested support for the idea.  He even uttered the thought that (our words, but his concept), ‘what the heck, what’s another year of overcrowding when we’ve put up with it for so many years already?’  Huh?

Leave it to the more wizened members to point out the absurdity of having asked the taxpayers to build a $67 million new high school with a capacity of 1,250 students – ostensibly because of overcrowding – and then debate whether to leave that brand new building half empty or with even fewer students for a year or longer after it’s to be finished (presumably by next summer).

In particular, property taxes were raised four years ago, in order to start this process of paying for this new school.  We can certainly imagine taxpayers wanting some of their previous tax dollars back – if those dollars weren’t going to be used as promised.

Bringing the kind of forthright common sense we expected he would add to the school board, former county commissioner and state representative Dan Ingle pointed out the obvious disconnect: “[220,000] square feet, and you’re only putting 584 students in it [i.e., less than half full if only freshmen and sophomores were to be assigned to the new high school in its first year] – that does not look good to the taxpayers of Alamance County.”

No, it definitely wouldn’t.

Likewise, Patsy Simpson, who can bring a hawkish budgetary eye to such discussions: “I think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to have a [220,000]-square foot facility and we’re not doing our jobs to fill it up.”

Some of Bowden’s other rationale for a “phased” approach, or at least adding juniors to the exempted category, was even more puzzling – indeed, irrational – in arguing that whether athletes could or would play sports at their new high school  should be another consideration in how quickly to populate the new school.

Excuse us: we were under the impression that the school board’s focus is supposed to be on the academic aspects of education, not athletics.

And we certainly hope future “transfer” requests, and their consideration by board members, do not turn on whether students can participate in the same sport(s) at the new school.

There were other troublesome revelations and comments during the discussion.

We don’t think it appropriate for a school board member to vote based on his own family’s personal preference, but new member Charles Parker was not reticent to explain that he wanted a broader exemption apparently at least partially because, based on where their home is located, his teenaged daughter was otherwise going to be redistricted from Eastern into the Southeast zone.

While there is no “financial gain” from his participation on the vote – the N.C. state law standard for having an illegal conflict of interest – it certainly did give a poor initial impression of the ethical standards Parker is bringing to his new post.

And while we’re on the subject of ethics and maintaining at least an appearance of high ethical standards, we also think the school board’s attorney might want to school new member Chuck Marsh about the need to be more circumspect about how much he puts a plug in for his radio station during school board meetings.  By our count, Marsh mentioned his radio station by name at least three times during his first meeting after being sworn in.

In the case of Parker and Marsh, they’re newbies, and perhaps their excesses can be excused, or at least overlooked, by inexperience.

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