The beginning of the end

Published 11:17 pm Friday, July 9, 2010

There’s plenty to be frustrated about when it comes to the matter of a new elementary school that would serve the southern end of the city.

For residents of Whaleyville and Holland, there is the knowledge that it is likely that, once the new school is complete, children will be riding buses longer than anyone would prefer. For the faculty of Robertson and Southwestern Elementary schools — the two schools that will be replaced by one new facility — there is the fear that a new, combined school will lack the community support both schools have benefitted from in their current locations within the communities they serve. And for everyone involved, including taxpayers, there has been stress over the drawn-out location debates and the ensuing search for a site that favors neither community, yet still meets the requirements of the city’s comprehensive plan.

Following the City Council’s surprise decision last month to invite itself into the site selection process, it seemed likely that a new point of frustration would arise in the form of a turf battle between the council and the School Board, which was so shocked by the move that it resorted to having its attorney draft a letter full of legal pronouncements and precedents and send it to Suffolk’s mayor.

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School Boards, the letter stated amid the legalese, are charged with choosing school sites. City Councils, Mayor Linda T. Johnson replied this week, are charged with providing the money to build the schools that will occupy those sites. Maybe the two bodies should be working together, she suggested. Things looked as if they could get ugly.

But then the School Board met on Thursday and made a smart decision — albeit without public discussion and apparently behind closed doors. Members resolved to work together with the City Council to find a suitable site for the new school, but they also reminded council members that the School Board is an autonomous body, or at least as autonomous as possible, considering that it is at the mercy of the City Council when it comes to local school funding.

There’s more than pride at stake in the situation, and the School Board’s resolution treads a vital fine line between capitulation and rebellion. City Council’s help is clearly needed in the site selection process — and its approval is necessary under Suffolk’s zoning laws. But School Board members need to feel confident that their business is their own. Council members are elected to oversee everything in city government except schools; School Board members are elected to oversee matters impinging on public education.

In the end, both bodies seem to have drawn back from the brink of a nasty turf war that would have accomplished nothing of value for Suffolk students. Because of that choice, students, parents, faculty and taxpayers can all hope this is the beginning of the end of the stalled process that has characterized planning for this new school.