GASTONIA Amy Westerman's two daughters transferred to the old school and loved it.
Even though Gastonia's York Chester Middle was in a building dating from the early 1940s, smaller classes and the close attention from teachers there made it special for the family.
So when Westerman recently learned York Chester, along with two elementary schools, might be on the chopping block to save millions during a time of tight budgets, she found the news hard to take.
"I was angry," said Westerman, 37, of Gastonia. "York Chester has been a fantastic school for my kids. The teachers definitely go above and beyond. This is about kids and their future. And their future is more important than money."
Tonight, the Gaston County Board of Education will decide whether to close York Chester Middle along with Rhyne and McAdenville elementary schools. The vote follows 13 community meetings, which began Dec. 7 and were attended by a total of about 200 people.
At those all-day sessions, school staff explained the proposal, which includes attendance line changes. To accommodate working parents who couldn't attend, the board scheduled a public hearing at 6 p.m. last Tuesday at Gaston College. Board members, along with staff, were present. About 50 people attended, and 14 signed up to speak for 3 minutes each.
The proposed closings have stirred controversy in the community, and school officials say it's not unexpected.
"If parents didn't have concerns we'd be worried," said Board Chairman Mark Upchurch. "Schools are a part of communities. We understand the passion people feel for their schools."
Contrary to rumors, he said the board members haven't made up their minds on the issue. Information collected at the meetings and public hearing will be evaluated after board members make "extensive tours" of the schools in question, Upchurch said.
'It upsets ... everybody'
Last year, the Gaston school district - the ninth largest in North Carolina - hired the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute to do an in-depth study of school buildings. The goal was to look at ways to cut costs and be more efficient.
The Urban Institute recommended closing the three schools, which aren't full and are among the oldest in the district.
At present, Rhyne is at 50 percent of capacity. McAdenville is at 55 percent, and York Chester is at 62 percent.
According to the institute, areas served by schools in the central and western part of the county won't have significant population growth in the next decade. While the study said growth in the eastern part of the county is most likely, it couldn't predict when that might occur.
The study found closing the schools would save the district about $900,000 a year and $25 million to $27 million over the next five to seven years.
If the proposal is approved, the schools would close next fall, and students would be reassigned to neighboring schools. Officials said no one would lose a job and employees would be placed in vacant positions.
Urban Institute consultant John Chesser, who did the Gaston study, said he has been conducting reports like this for nearly 20 years and "they can cause ... an uproar."
"I take this very seriously, but there's no way I can make everybody happy," he said. "It upsets virtually everybody. I totally understand and empathize with the families."
At last Tuesday's hearing, Bill Carstarphen spoke on behalf of McAdenville Elementary. A McAdenville native and president of McAdenville-based Pharr Yarns, he took issue with the Urban Institute's findings on savings and McAdenville not being considered in a growth area.
Carstarphen said the core of the school building is in good shape for now and that "the savings realized by closingMcAdenville are less than 10 percent of the $25 million reported in the study."
Also, McAdenville is "an excellent site because it is located squarely in the center of an area with tremendous growth potential for Gaston County," Carstarphen said. "This growth has been planned for some time - part is under way and the other development will begin shortly."
He cited the new residential development next to the school with 60 homes already built and 120 home sites left. Pharr plans to develop other property inside the city limits - a project Carstarphen said will increase the town's current population from 825 to 2,500.
If the McAdenville school closes, other nearby schools will face overcrowding and "the county will have lost control of a great school site," he said.
Carstarphen reminded the board that school closure means "the property and building at McAdenville Elementary reverts back to Pharr Yarns according to the deed."
'Give us ... a year'
Speaking for Rhyne Elementary, Gastonia City Council member Todd Pierceall said the school is in an area with one of the city's highest crime rates - an area that's "been hit, kicked and knocked in the ground."
"We are in the process of bringing that back up," he said. "We are ready for a change. But you can't do it without a school. It's one of the selling points of the community."
While Rhyne Elementary is old and needs improvements, he asked the school board to "give us at least one year and let the community get involved ... let us see what we can do ... and make it once again a proud area of Gastonia."
Pierceall said possibilities include getting businesses to donate services, equipment or financial help for school improvements and repairs.
A plea to keep York Chester's doors open came from Amy Westerman's 14-year-old daughter, Ashley. The eighth-grader asked the board to save the school where "I get the attention I need to succeed."
"She was nervous. It's the first time she'd made a speech like that," said Amy Westerman, who also addressed the board. "I was really proud of her. I hope we made an impact."