Parents demand answers, few coming
Plans to look at boundary changes for Torrence Creek Elementary students next year continue to move forward, despite assurances from school board member Rhonda Lennon that the school would be removed from the district’s list of schools up for changes next school year.
“We’re moving forward until the board tells us not to,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Planning Specialist Dennis LaCaria said. The staff proposed making boundary changes to relieve the school, which operates well above capacity, as part of their plans for improvements to area schools. Lennon does not want to move forward with those plans, which would take effect for the 2011-12 school year.
But in a work session Oct. 4, the school board voted to remove six schools from the district’s original list of 78, and Torrence Creek was not one of them. Lennon was unable to attend the work session due to a work conflict, and the board decided not to vote on removing the school without her present, since she is the representative for that area.
Since that meeting, the board has decided not to vote on anything during work sessions unless all nine board members are present board chairman Eric Davis said. Lennon, an emergency room nurse, had to miss the work session again Monday, Oct. 11 for work.
Lennon wants to leave the school as-is for next year, and to involve members of the school community in discussions this spring about next steps for the school in 2012-13. “There’s too much community involvement needed to make the decision in a month,” she said. The board will vote on changes Nov. 9.
“Rhonda Lennon says there isn’t enough time to look into this issue, but this issue has been on the table for many years. She should be the one to make the time,” Torrence Creek parent Karen Munson said in an e-mail.
“The system put (the school) over capacity by drawing the boundaries to begin with. … The system needs to now fix it now.”
The school has about 410 students more than it should, uses 23 mobile units, and has 14 additional empty units on campus that could be used if needed.
The board planned a relief school on Stumptown Road years ago, but a souring economy has prevented Mecklenburg County from selling bonds to pay for the school.
“We’ve been looking at Stumptown as the solution,” Torrence Creek parent Carrie Kester said. She worries that the school will lose valuable resources next year, like teacher assistants, if their student numbers fall below a certain number. She does not think boundary changes are the right answer.
“All that would mean is that we’re falling under some caps,” Kester said. It would not affect class sizes, the number of mobile units or other aspects, she said.
At the community forum scheduled to discuss proposed changes to Torrence Creek and six other area schools Thursday, Oct. 7, a Torrence Creek father asked Lennon if the board could guarantee that if funding is available next summer, it will be put towards building the relief school.
“I can guarantee it would be in the top four projects if the bond money is sold,” Lennon replied.
But some board members and staff members hesitate to put money into capital improvements when there are pressing needs inside classrooms, like paying for teachers. And with more forthcoming cutbacks, the system will likely have to choose between the two.
“We need to look at other alternatives for next year before we start impacting teacher positions,” Building the Stumptown Road school is contingent on whether the county decides to sell some of its bond money next summer, when it will also be facing drastic budget cuts. School staff is preparing to lose $47 million in federal funding and recently learned the state wants additional budget cuts of 5, 10 or 15 percent, which translates to between $30 and $90 million on top of the $47 million.
The new Stumptown school would cost roughly $13 million to build.
“Even if the county commissioners decided to sell those bonds, we would still be deciding to put more money into buildings instead of putting it toward teachers (if we chose to build the Stumptown school),” Davis told parents during the Torrence Creek break-out session Thursday night.
The cost to pay the debt on the bonds would come out of the district’s budget, he said, so the board and district staff would be faced with two pressing questions: can the county carry the debt, and do we want to put it towards the school building.
“By reassigning students, we don’t take on any more debt,” he said.
His response was unsettling to some parents at the forum, who thought the Stumptown school was a sure thing as soon as funding was made available.
“Now we realize that we’ve got a lot of work to do to change the hearts and minds of the board members,” Kester said.