Board tables decision on NRHS

Published 10:14 pm Thursday, October 17, 2019

Nansemond River High School is making creative use of its space amid overcrowding, and the School Board had a chance to consider putting in trailers to help.

However, after discussion, board member David Mitnick withdrew his two-part motion to put in 10 trailers at a cost of $159,500 to $240,500 and explore the option of rezoning the high schools instead.

The school division had already missed the timeline to have them installed at Nansemond River — which is 90 students overcapacity as of Sept. 12 at 1,584 students — by the start of the second semester. Terry Napier, Suffolk Public Schools’ Director of Facilities and Planning, said March 2020 was the earliest the trailers could be ready.

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The work would include moving up to 10, 30-year-old trailers onto a practice field at the school, and then outfitting them with electricity, internet and other communications and infrastructure to connect them to the school building. The higher cost Napier estimated was due to adding up to eight Chromebook carts for the trailers.

Nansemond River Principal Daniel O’Leary explained the current strategies the school has undertaken to ease overcrowding there. They include increasing the lunch shifts from four to five, which reduced by 80 students the number getting lunch at one time. The school also moved from having nine floating teachers who taught off a cart to just two, but having nine pairs of teachers so that one has their own room for the entire day every other day.

O’Leary said there needs to be deeper discussion about the use of trailers at the school.

“It answers part of the question (but) it creates more questions,” O’Leary said. “But it also does not address restrooms, it doesn’t address the cafeteria size, it does not address (having) one gym for all, having an auxiliary gym that we could split up (physical education) classrooms.

Napier said the trailers would be a short-term fix but was concerned that some would consider the problem solved and move on, rather than addressing the overcrowding.

Two permanent solutions exist, he said. One is to build a new school and rezone for that, or rezone for the current high schools, which he did not think was currently doable.

“The way it’s set up now with where our high schools are located and where the housing, where the neighborhoods are, for us to rezone any significant number of students out of Nansemond River is going to be very painful for a lot of people,” Napier said. “I would hate to be the one that has to tell somebody, you can sit in your backyard and look at the school, but you’ve got to go to school way over there somewhere. That’s difficult for people to accept. But I think the reality is, for us to do anything with rezoning, with our current locations, we would really have to look at doing something like that.”

After hearing that, Mitnick, who spent time at the school observing the situation, said he fully supported rezoning Nansemond River.

Board member Tyron Riddick said the school division needs to rezone schools, but that conversation needs to tie into the city’s Capital Improvements Program and Plan.

Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck said that she could not see spending nearly $300,000 “that we do not have” and believes spending the money on trailers would not display good stewardship.

“I understand it’s an inconvenience, but Nansemond River High School has always been outstanding,” Brooks-Buck said. “I’m not saying it’s not needed, but we’re going to upset people by moving places before the study comes out. Nansemond River isn’t our only overcrowded school.”

The city and school board currently have a request for proposal out for a school facilities needs assessment and attendance zone plan.

“I think the feasibility study that’s in the works is going to be a revelation to a lot of people,” said School Board Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum.

She said the city needs to realize that when it allows growth to continue, it puts the school division in a difficult position.

Napier said the idea of not building larger schools to accommodate growth has to stop, or else city schools will continue to be overcrowded and trailers will continue to be a need.

“We have to stop thinking in terms of, what can we build today and fill it today,” Napier said. “There’s been a reluctance in the past to building empty classrooms. Well, if you don’t build empty classrooms, you’re going to fill a building up real quick, and then you’re going to have mobile units.

“We have to get out of this idea that we’re not going to build empty classrooms, because if we don’t, this problem will never go away as long as we keep building houses, apartments and all these things. … They’re good things for the city, but they’re not good things for us.”