Union County school leaders consider $3 million offer
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Monday, Feb. 10, 2014

Union County school leaders consider $3 million offer

Wesley Chapel resident Sean O’Shea began his comments to the Union County Board of Education Feb. 4 with a definition of the word “chess,” and said the Board of Education and the Union County Commissioners were players.

He referred to commissioners’ $3 million offer on Feb. 3 to buy 49 mobile classrooms to address overcrowding at some of the county’s schools and said “all stakeholders” need to work together to find the best solution.

“Let’s stop the chess game,” he said.

His comments, and the comments of six other speakers, came after the board voted to table its discussion on possible solutions to school overcrowding until its next work session. Donna Mullarkey, executive assistant to Superintendent Dr. Mary Ellis, said later that a time and place for the work session had not yet been set, but it would be held in February.

The agenda item was postponed on a motion by board member Sherry Hodges, who said board members needed more time to review the county commissioners’ offer.

That agenda item was one of the main reasons more than a thousand people attended the meeting at Marvin Ridge High School. The 900-seat auditorium couldn’t hold everyone who came to the meeting, so 200-300 more people went into the school’s cafeteria, media center, gymnasium and auxiliary gymnasium to watch the meeting live on streaming video.

Mayors and council representatives from Stallings, Wesley Chapel, Marvin and Waxhaw were in the audience. Stallings and Wesley Chapel passed resolutions seeking alternatives to redistricting in late January, and Waxhaw passed a resolution Feb. 3 asking for a more collaborative approach from the Board of Education for exploring solutions to school overcrowding and redistricting.

At its Feb. 5 meeting, Indian Trail officials unanimously approved a resolution saying the county commissioners and board of education should let Union County’s voters decide on the best solution, and “this can be accomplished with a school bond referendum on the November 2014 election ballot. … ”

The resolution also said town leaders would like “to begin an open dialogue with schools leaders regarding other short-term options.”

Sitting in the middle section of the auditorium was a large group from the MillBridge neighborhood in Waxhaw. They wore red T-shirts printed with “Keep Calm and Stay Strong. We are MillBridge.”

Before the public comment portion of the meeting, board member John Collins said he has been bothered by lies and misinformation being spread on social media sites about Dr. Ellis and other UCPS staff members. He defended them, saying they “have worked tirelessly their entire careers to put UCPS on the education map. …

“The majority of this UCPS staff has been through 20 or 30 budget cycles in their careers and 10 or 12 reassignments since 2004 when I came onto this board,” he said. “None have been easy … My own children were reassigned from their original schools twice between elementary school and high school.”

Poor audio during the meeting made the public comment session difficult to hear, but the speakers made their objections to capping and redistricting clear. Several said they support the mobile classroom offer by the county, but they recognize it as a temporary solution.

Eighth-grade student Sarah Terrando told the board it takes an hour each way for her to go to school because of the enrollment cap in place at her neighborhood school, Marvin Ridge Middle School. Her father, John Terrando, said only four students “and a lot of empty air” ride her bus to Parkwood Middle, which generates unnecessary fuel, driver and bus expenses.

Lisa Hall expressed concerns about the safety of the Parkwood cluster’s older buildings – particularly Western Union Elementary, which she described as “an accident waiting to happen.”

“Our children are not pawns in a game,” she said. “They are our most precious commodity. Please treat them that way.”

Dr. Jody Holler talked about the dangers and additional costs of long bus rides and also addressed the safety concerns that the school board has expressed with mobile units: tornadoes. He said he had done some research and found that, since 1865, only one child had died at school from a tornado. It was in 1931, he said “and he wasn’t in a trailer.”

He said students are “85 times more likely to die in a school bus accident than in a tornado,” and the odds increase with longer commutes.

Several speakers suggested that the strong community of parents working against the proposed redistricting plans represented volunteers willing to work with the school board and the county commission to help resolve issues.

“We’re untapped,” said Lance Simpson. “And we’re free.”

After the 30-minute public comment session, the board called a 10-minute recess. More than half the crowd left during the recess because a discussion about “options to ease overcrowding” had been removed from the agenda.

Jane Duckwall is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jane? Email her at jbduckwall@gmail.com.

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