Concerns unheard

Published 11:44 pm Thursday, April 21, 2011

Robertson: Parents at Robertson Elementary School are fired up that they never got the chance to speak up about the closing of their school, seen in this file photo. Parents say it will keep their children on buses longer and increase their class sizes.

Robertson parents voice concerns that were never heard

Plenty of Robertson Elementary School parents are angry.

They’re angry that they didn’t get the chance to voice their concerns about their children’s school closing before a vote was taken earlier this month.

The Suffolk School Board voted 6-1 to close Mount Zion and Robertson elementary schools after learning the city was proposing a funding cut. Mount Zion had been on the chopping block earlier in the process, but Robertson had not.

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Some board members felt parents should be able to speak about the proposal. But without parental input, the board made the decision.

Board member Phyllis Byrum, who represents the Robertson’s borough, said she didn’t think it was fair the parents and teachers weren’t given the opportunity to speak.

“I had hoped that they would get a voice, but that didn’t prevail,” she said.

Robertson parent Jennifer Schmack said she and her husband, Richard, chose their home in Whaleyville because it was close to Robertson.

She said they liked that Robertson was comparable to her children’s school at the time — coincidentally, Mount Zion.

Jennifer Schmack said even though she knew Robertson would close sooner rather than later, she hoped it wouldn’t close before her 9-year-old son, Derek, completed the fifth grade and moved on to middle school.

“I was hoping I’d get one more out before the change,” she said. “I feel bad for him because he won’t be able to graduate from (Robertson).”

Schmack’s husband, Richard, said the board’s decision to close Robertson without parents’ comments was sneaky, deceitful and underhanded.

“If they had had a public session, and they still did what they did then, at least I would have had to say what I wanted to say,” he said.

Board members ultimately decided to close Robertson because it has the highest utility bill per square foot of all the city’s schools.

Closing Robertson and Mount Zion will save the schools about $1.3 million. Robertson’s closing alone saves $731,912.

“I’d like to know why it costs so much to operate (Robertson),” Richard Schmack said. “There’s something wrong with that number.”

The bigger concern for Richard and Jennifer Schmack is transportation. No matter where Derek and their 6-year-old daughter, Erika, end up, there is going to be a longer bus ride ahead of them, Richard Schmack said.

Byrum said Robertson students would probably be sent to Southwestern, Kilby Shores or Booker T. Washington elementary schools.

Richard Schmack said if his children are sent to Booker T. Washington Elementary School, they will be an extra 13 miles away.

“There’s going to be a long commute for them,” Jennifer Schmack said. “I can only imagine how long my little ones are going to be on the bus.”

Byrum said the commute for Robertson students is one of her biggest concerns as well, but she said she hopes the school board will work to create express bus routes for the students to cut travel time.

“We don’t want to have children on the bus too long,” Byrum said.

Richard and Jennifer also are concerned about how their children’s class sizes will increase.

In Erika’s kindergarten class at Robertson, there are 17 students. If she goes to Booker T. Washington or Kilby Shores elementary school, Jennifer Schmack said she expects Erika’s class will have up to 24 kids in it.

“You can’t make me believe that my child is going to get the individual attention … at a larger school,” she said.

Schmack said her children have not talked about the closing very much, but 6-year-old Erika is concerned about her friendships.

“(She) just got a best friend, and she’s asking where her friend Natalie will go and will she still see her,” Jennifer Schmack said.

Richard Schmack said he’s upset his son Derek is going to have to start over.

“His comfort level is certainly not going to be the same as it was at Robertson,” he said. “To a 9-year-old boy, (his school closing) is a big deal.”

A new, centralized school for southern Suffolk has long been planned, and Byrum said she hopes to make this plan a reality soon, at which time Southwestern also will close.

But for now, she said Southwestern can accommodate more students than Robertson can.

The School Board will hold a special meeting to present a timeline for the rezoning that will take place as a result of the closings.

The meeting will be held at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 26, at King’s Fork High School. While it is open to the public, it is not a public input meeting.

Richard Schmack said he does not plan to attend.

“I see no need to go up there and get my blood pressure up any more than it is,” he said.