Time for some due diligence

Published 10:07 pm Thursday, April 8, 2010

In what was clearly a surprise to the city’s School Board, the Suffolk City Council voted 5-3 on Wednesday to deny a request for a permit that would have allowed the school system to build and operate a new school on Copeland Road. The new facility is intended as a replacement to aging and inadequate elementary schools serving the Whaleyville and Holland communities.

City Council members shared the concerns of the Planning Commission that placing the new, combined school in its proposed location would be contrary to the city’s comprehensive plan and could expose students to a variety of problems, ranging from exposure to farm chemicals to high fluoride levels in the well water that would be used at the facility.

Surely the School Board was aware of the site’s incompatibility with the city’s comprehensive plan before narrowing down a reported list of 17 potential locations to this one. Still, though, members sought to get city approval for the proposed location, perhaps expecting that the city would ignore its plan or, perhaps, amend it to allow the school to be located in the midst of intensive agriculture.

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It would be appropriate for the city to take a look at the comprehensive plan to determine whether it should be updated to allow placing the school in that location and to determine whether there are other interim updates that need to be made prior to its next scheduled rewrite. If areas of the city that could realistically support a school are unnecessarily off limits to that kind of development, Suffolk’s planning documents are due for a change.

Considering the other concerns that were raised regarding the proposed site, however, that reconsideration should be deliberate and comprehensive. It would serve no one’s interest for school operations to conflict with neighbors’ ability to run their farms. And teachers should not have to worry about whether the neighbor has sprayed pesticides on his crops when it is time to head outside for recess.

A little due diligence on the School Board’s behalf would have answered many of the questions that City Council members had about the site and could have resulted in a different outcome during Wednesday’s vote. That due diligence would have been most effective prior to requesting council’s approval on the site. Instead, it will now be necessary to do it after the fact and then ask for council’s reconsideration. Or the School Board will have to search for a completely new site with a completely new set of challenges.

We can only hope that if the second option turns out to be Suffolk’s course of action, the School Board will be pay a bit more attention to the realities of the situation and a little less attention to the politics involved.