City Council takes over school’s site selection

Published 9:41 pm Thursday, June 17, 2010

The decision made by the Suffolk City Council Wednesday to take charge of the site selection process for a new elementary school in the south part of the city may have come across as a surprise to many members of the School Board.

School Board chairwoman Lorraine Skeeter said the act of deciding where a new elementary school — designed to combine the school populations of Robertson Elementary in Whaleyville and Southwestern Elementary in Holland into one school — is reserved for the board members in their constitution.

The City Council voted 5-3 during their Wednesday meeting, however, to have the city manager and planners find a location for the school.

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“I didn’t know anything about it,” Skeeter said. “I agree with Mr. [Councilman Joe] Barlow that we should have been informed. I don’t know why they would do something like this. I’m very puzzled about it.”

After the City Council voted last year to fund the building of one new school in the southern end of the city, the school board has been split on where to put the school.

A consensus was finally reached on a site on Copeland Road, which the Planning Commission vetoed because it did not adhere to the 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.

The school board went back the drawing board and voted earlier this month to send a letter to council to request a joint meeting to clear up what their goals were.

“We were left in limbo,” said School Board member Phyllis Byrum, who represents the Whaleyville community. “I thought we’d come up with a good compromise since we could only build one school. We set up a meeting to discuss information and know where City Council stood. We weren’t at a standstill. We needed to clear some things up with them though.”

School Board member Enoch Copeland, who represents Holy Neck, said he felt the School Board was taking a “laissez-faire” approach.

“We’re not doing anything,” Copeland said. “Once we got shot down from the Copeland Road project, we came to a stop. The students still need an education.”

The idea to take the reigns of the site selection process originated from Councilman Jeffrey Gardy, Copeland’s counterpart on the council.

One thing has been unanimous among school officials — they feel city leaders should have talked to them before taking a vote.

“If they wanted to do that, they should have done it two years ago, and we could have had the school built by now,” said School Superintendent Milton Liverman.

“No one talked to us about this at all,” Skeeter said. “Who knows, maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way. I don’t know if it’s a slap in the face. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s not. But I do hope we can still work together on this. I think we can.”