Schools go back to the drawing board

Published 8:17 pm Saturday, April 10, 2010

Suffolk School Board members have made no secret of their desire to find a centrally located site for an elementary school that would serve members of the Holland and Whaleyville communities.

Despite entreaties from people in both villages, the board has diligently searched for a location that would seem fair — or at least equally unfair — to people in both areas, whose children currently attend community schools that will be closed once the new, combined facility is built.

Some of those involved in choosing a place to put the new school, however, say that last week’s City Council decision to deny a zoning exception for the School Board’s first-choice site, however, casts doubt on the School Board’s ability to fulfill its wish in regards to the two communities.

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“We had hoped they’d go with our recommendation, but we’ll have to go to the drawing board and come up with another plan,” said School Board member Phyllis Byrum, who represents Whaleyville.

Some board members say they will continue to ask the City Council to approve a central location. Others say the council’s decision means they’ll need to choose a community to host the school. And there is even some thought about asking the council to reconsider its position against separate new schools.

After considering as many as 18 locations for a school that would replace Southwestern and Robertson Elementary schools, the School Board had settled on a Copeland Road site situated between the two communities that will use the school most.

But placement of a school on that property was incompatible with the city’s comprehensive plan, and City Council declined to allow an exception.

“When we discussed finding a centralized property between the two communities, we knew it did not conform to the comprehensive plan, but decided to ask for a waiver,” School Board member Michael Debranksi said. “I thought the idea of one school was fiscally responsible attempt to bring the students together under one roof and manage the city’s money in a positive way, and the reason I supported this location was because it would serve both Whaleyville and Holland — not just one or the other.”

But sticking to the comprehensive plan, “will rule out about 80 percent of the plots we’ve looked at,” Debranski said. “There are probably only two or three that fall under the conditions.”

There are others, however, who approve of the Council’s decision.

“I was against putting the school in an agricultural area to compete with farmers and loggers,” said Board member Enoch Copeland, who represents Holland. “That site was out in no man’s land. Copeland was widened just for the log trucks. You have to put the schools where you have the people and access to recreation.”

Late last week, the School Board was split about what to do next.

While some members say they will continue to lobby for a school located in Holland, others want to appeal to the City Council.

“I was for putting the school in the communities,” Byrum said. “But we have to go with the money we’re given by the city, which is why I was for a centrally located school. I think it’s time to reevaluate the comprehensive plan and look to the future. I think we should go back to the council and show them the reasons we think a centrally located school would work best.”

Other options could include renewing ideas that had been set aside.

“At one point we talked of building one school and renovating Robertson,” Byrum said. “That could come back on the drawing board.”

Copeland agreed that could be an option.

“We need to renovate Robertson in Whaleyville and replace the school in Holland,” he said.