School plans are a good sign

Published 10:31 pm Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Here’s at least some evidence that there’s a new way of thinking at City Hall: A fancy new downtown library is suddenly taking a backseat to desperately needed new schools.

On Tuesday, the city’s Planning Commission heard a recommendation from administrative staff that Suffolk’s capital improvements plan be re-prioritized to postpone funding for the proposed new library and accelerate funding for an elementary school and a middle school in the fast-growing northern part of the city.

The proposed capital improvements plan would have the city begin funding design and construction for a new elementary school and new middle school in fiscal year 2016. Both schools could open by the fall of 2018. Under the existing plan — a plan that likely gives Suffolk Public Schools administrators nightmares — the middle school would not open until the fall of 2019, and the elementary school could be postponed until as late as the middle of the following decade.

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The new schools would supplement or replace decaying facilities that have far outlived their life expectancy. The elementary school would replace Driver and Florence Bowser elementary schools and serve about 1,000 students, officials said. The middle school would be located in Harbour View, serving at least 600 students and relieving crisis-level overcrowding at John Yeates Middle School.

Perhaps even more telling is the proposal to slow the march toward a new downtown library. To be sure, Suffolk’s main branch, the Morgan Memorial Library, is outdated and straining to meet its users’ needs. But the future of libraries is generally in flux right now, anyway, and waiting an extra year or two to begin designing the next iteration for the downtown area will result in a facility far more likely to serve the specific needs of the city.

By switching the priorities, city staffers have shown they’re finally hearing the cries of the many citizens who have spent the past few years crying out for more attention to the needs of the school system. They also demonstrate a sensitivity to appearances that has been largely absent in recent years by postponing a marquee project that will benefit a relative few people in favor of less visible ones that will benefit many thousands of citizens.

With the lame-duck council unable to influence the proposed changes to the capital improvements plan, which will not come before City Council prior to its being refreshed with three newly elected members in January, there’s a high likelihood that the proposal will advance without objection.

That’s good news for the school system and its users and even for the library and its patrons. Mostly, though, it’s good news for citizens of Suffolk, who have waited far too long for a municipal government that could be described as responsive, responsible and representative.