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School debate re-lit

A majority of Suffolk City Council now wants a say in where a replacement for Southwestern and Robertson elementary schools is built.

Council voted 5-3 Wednesday to instruct the city manager to work with planners to find a site that will be appropriate for a new school. Councilmen Robert Barclay, Joe Barlow and Leroy Bennett voted in opposition.

“If we had planned to go in that direction, we should have told the School Board two years ago, and we could have probably had the school built already,” Bennett said.

The issue of how and where to replace the aging elementary schools in Holland and Whaleyville has been festering in the city for years. Finally, in July 2009, the School Board voted to replace the two schools with one, bigger school.

The issue then became where to place the new school. A site on Copeland Road was shot down earlier this year, first by the Planning Commission and then by City Council, because it is not appropriate for a large school, according to the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

The Comprehensive Plan guides against placing large schools in the Rural Conservation Agricultural District, and instead recommends that schools be placed either in the Urban/Suburban Growth Districts — greater downtown and North Suffolk — or in the villages.

However, the proposed replacement school would draw students from the western and southern parts of the city, as well as from areas of downtown. Putting the school in the village of Holland, the village of Whaleyville or in downtown would create inordinately long bus rides for elementary school students from the other two areas, school officials have said.

Councilman Jeffrey Gardy, who represents the Holland area, brought up the issue at the end of Wednesday’s meeting.

“We need to find us a site now,” he said, making a motion to instruct City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn and city planners to work together to find a suitable site. “This will get the school site on board. We need to go with it.”

Vice Mayor Curtis Milteer, the Whaleyville-area representative, supported Gardy’s motion, but other council members did not.

“I have some concerns about this,” Barlow said. “The School Board ought to be kept in the loop.”

There was some confusion among council members about whether the motion meant a return to the two-school concept. One version of the motion included directing the city manager to investigate sources of funding to renovate Robertson Elementary School, but that was not a part of the final motion.