I write this letter to suggest to you that your authority to close Pocahontas High School is limited. As I read the code, you may only close the school if doing so increases the efficiency of the county school system in some significant way. That has yet to be demonstrated in any convincing manner. More important than the issue of whether closing PHS will improve efficiency, I believe that you owe it to the county to have an coherent policy that is open and transparent on when school closures and consolidations are to take place - a policy that can be applied county wide at the conclusion of this current process.
School Board Chairman Mike Dennis opened the public hearing on March 3rd by referring to a passage of code that gives the school board the authority to close a school. The key concept seemed to be “efficiency.” And I think the section was #4 22.1-79 of the Virginia Code.
A school board shall:As I understood what was read from the code, the Board has the authority to close a school IF closing that school makes the county school system more efficient. And as a corollary, that authority does not exist if you fail to show improved efficiency.
4. Provide for the consolidation of schools or redistricting of school boundaries or adopt pupil assignment plans whenever such procedure will contribute to the efficiency of the school division;
As I listened to that section of code being read on March 3rd at the public hearing, it struck me that closing Pocahontas High School is not a simple matter of the Board’s discretion. It seems you have to justify (and, by inference, document) how the closure will make the county more efficient. The purpose of a public hearing is NOT to convince you, the Board, to do one thing or another; instead the hearing provides information that may help you as board members decide whether or not closing the school will improve the efficiency of the school system. But at the end of the day, you as Board members (not the public) have the burden of being persuasive.
Nationally, school closures usually relate to one of three issues. Either a school is closed because the facility is in decline; or because the academic health of the school seems beyond repair (that reason rarely stands alone, since changing the personnel at a school can often solve that problem); or because running that school is an expensive burden that can be alleviated through consolidation.
The facilities at PHS are not in decline. The school’s SOL scores are higher than the SOL scores are Tazewell High School. This is especially true for children with disabilities. Anyone can compare the two school by looking here at Pocahontas High data and at Tazewell High data.
That leaves finances. Before voting on the closure of any school, I think your Board is obligated (ethically, at least) to produce a comprehensive analysis of the financial impact of closing that school. How many teaching positions will be eliminated in order to save money? Will new positions have to be created elsewhere? How will transportation costs change? How will utility costs change at schools accepting students from the school being closed? And so forth…
How you could vote on the issue without such a document to inform your decision is beyond me. Such a document should be produced and released to the public, and the public should be allowed to comment on that document before there is a vote. If you vote without such a document, you will be simply closing your eyes, gritting your teeth and saying “I don’t know why, but this seems good to me…”
At the end of this process, whether PHS is closed or not, I think you have a responsibility (now that this can of worms is open) to produce something like a policy or a set of guidelines for making these decisions. If PHS is closed for financial reasons, we need to be able to say unequivocally that you could NOT have saved more money by closing Raven Elementary or Springville Elementary. Reading programs under No Child Left Behind focus on grades K-3; and yet in the Bluefield area the third grade at Graham Intermediate is physically separated from grades K-2 at Dudley Primary. Is there money to be saved by consolidating those two schools into a single elementary school?
There needs to be some rational, objective, measurable process for determining when a school needs to be closed. Student population will decline and facilities will age over the next decade or so. You need to be able to point to a process that you can use to determine which school is closed next - sacrificed to efficiency. If you can’t justify the decision to close PHS in a publicly available document on finances, facilities, or academics, I’d suspect that closing the school violates the state code Mike read at the beginning of the March 3rd public hearing – and that you could possibly be in some way liable.