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No decision on new school sites
Feb 20, 2007 12:00 am
"Defer" was the word of the evening at last night's meeting of the Education Committee of the Wilson County Commission.
With a 5-2 vote, commissioners on the committee chose to delay a decision on two potential new county high school locations for 90 days.
"We need more information," commissioner Bob Neal said before making the motion to defer the proposed high school sites. "There are a few questions we still need answers to."
The committee met before a sea of purple. A crowd of Watertown High School parents, students and friends packed the commission chamber, hoping to hear the OK from the commissioners for a plan to see the county's smallest high school replaced.
The crowd was largely passive, sitting calmly as the wheels of government turned before their eyes. The fact that so many were in the room was only apparent when applause burst out after statements by two commissioners – Annette Stafford and Gary Tarpley – to vote against the delay.
Many in the audience said after the meeting they had come to speak about the need for a new Watertown high school. They were denied that opportunity right from the start of proceedings. Education Committee chairman Paul Abercrombie told the crowd that, in the interest of time, it was better not to let audience members speak.
"If everyone who wants to speak speaks, we'll be here for hours," he said. "So we're just going to hear from school officials."
After the meeting, that decision drew criticism from several in attendance, including Stafford.
"I think it's rude not to let [the audience] speak," she said. "As commissioners, we have a right to take their money. As taxpayers they should have a right to talk to us, even if it does take all night."
The commissioners didn't speak much about Watertown either, turning most of their attention to the Board of Education's recommended site for a new Lebanon High School. The location the BoE approved would place the new LHS near Hunters Point Golf Course on Highway 231.
Abercrombie said the location did not sit well with his constituents.
"I've fielded a lot of calls about this in the last few days and I have not heard one favorable comment about 231," he said. "Take that for what it's worth."
Commissioner Carolyn Thompson, who voted with the majority, said the Highway 231 location could create a hassle for drivers.
"There are already five schools near there," she said. "Traffic is already a problem in Lebanon – if we put a high school there, things will just get worse."
Stafford said the concerns about the Highway 231 location were little more than a smokescreen.
"At first, there were no issues with 231," she said. "Then, people started saying it was too expensive. Now it's something else. I think the whole debate is just another way to put it off for longer."
Tarpley, who joined Stafford in opposing the deferment, said that more delays would impact students in the classroom.
"Lebanon needs a high school right now," he barked. "You're going to hurt these kids by making them wait any longer than they already have to."
Board of Education chair Lisa McMillin agreed with Tarpley and refuted claims that the proposed LHS site was unpopular.
"All I'm hearing is favorable things," she said. "People are excited to get 1,650 kids out of a 1,000 student capacity school."
Despite the fact that their school was left largely out of the discussion last night, the crowd from Watertown stayed for the entire meeting. Afterwards, some in attendance said they were disappointed by what they saw.
"I think they had their minds made up before they went in there," Watertown grandmother Julia Haun said after the session was adjourned. "The whole thing was a joke."
Interim Director of Schools Mickey Hall told the commissioners on the committee he would work hard to answer all their questions about the potential school sites over the next 90 days. He said that he hoped three months would be all the time the committee needed to make up their minds.
"Any delay by the commissioners is a delay before we can get those kids in a new school," he said. "I hope we don't have to wait much longer."
Staff Writer Evan McMorris-Santoro can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 16 or firstname.lastname@example.org