Albemarle residents fight against rural school closures

Parents in Albemarle County are concerned the County School Board may be considering closing small rural schools, including Yancey Elementary. (Photo by John Robinson) Parents in Albemarle County are concerned the County School Board may be considering closing small rural schools, including Yancey Elementary. (Photo by John Robinson)

A recent cost study by a county schools committee has reignited an argument over the value of keeping small rural schools open, and parents are outraged that the Albemarle County School Board might consider closing Yancey and Red Hill elementary schools, forcing kids to commute to Scottsville.

At the July 12 Albemarle County School Board meeting, the Board’s Long Range Planning Advisory Committee presented its findings on necessary school renovations over the next five years. The LRPAC recommended a five-year capital investment improvement plan to the school board, which included spending about $7 million at Yancey for more land, an addition, and a new septic system, HVAC, and roof. LRPAC member Dean Riddick said the committee told the school board “we did not think that was the wisest investment of our money.” The committee also suggested building an addition onto Scottsville Elementary, large enough to accommodate Yancey’s 130 students.

Parents and elected officials saw cause for alarm in the report, and County Supervisor Christopher Dumler arranged a forum last Wednesday at Yancey Elementary School in Esmont, where parents, grandparents, and neighbors packed into the cafeteria to air grievances and formulate a plan.

Dumler is a supporter of the small schools in the county.

“They are, quite honestly, sometimes the only value that taxpayers in rural county areas get,” he said. “We certainly don’t get more police protection, we certainly don’t get more money spent on roads.”

Albemarle County School Board member Eric Strucko shared Dumler’s stance. He said putting off a renovation becomes increasingly more expensive per student “if you’ve let it go for years,” and money saved in the short-term will accumulate over time. He said he was surprised to see the issue crop up again after the resolution of similar arguments. “I supported keeping the small elementary schools open four years ago, and I support it now,” said Strucko.

Albemarle County School Board member Diantha McKeel, who did not attend the Wednesday meeting in Esmont, said the board has approved several projects at Yancey recently, including new cabinets and tile, but tough economic times forced board members to eliminate projects across the county.

“Unless you had a leak in your roof or there was something that was a safety issue for children, most everything was put on hold,” she said. “We certainly have not neglected Yancey. With the downturn in the economy, Yancey was treated just like all the other schools.”

McKeel said she understands why parents are frustrated, and recognizes that Yancey serves a dual role in the area.

“The Albemarle County community, as well as Esmont and Yancey, will have to decide if it is the role of the school district to provide a community center,” she said. “And it may be.”

She said the county has an unusually high number of small schools, and each pupil already costs the county about $1,500 more than those in large schools. In addition, the renovations at Yancey would end up costing about $50,000 per student.

“Certainly that $7 million got our attention,” McKeel said. “We didn’t feel it was a fiscally sound usage of money.”

Despite their concerns about costs, McKeel and Riddick said neither the school board nor the LRPAC discussed closing Yancey or Red Hill.

“We didn’t have the word ‘closing’ in our presentation at all. We made sure we never mentioned the closing of any school,” Riddick said. “Our task was to show the costs of projects for keeping all schools open, which we did.”

McKeel said the Board has several options, but has not yet made a decision.

“If we chose not to spend the $7 million, we could spend a smaller amount of money to do some critical repairs, and certainly the children could stay down there,” she said. “At some point you have to discuss education and taxpayer resources, so I really don’t know until the school board has a discussion about it.”

The Capital Improvement Plan will come to a close next April when the Board of Supervisors approves the budget. In the meantime, members of the Esmont community plan to make it known that they will not support the closing of Yancey or Red Hill. Meeting attendees signed a petition to keep the schools open, and Dumler and Snow encouraged them all to have a presence at meetings and make their voices heard.

Berlinda Mills, a lifelong Albemarle County resident who attended Yancey herself and put three children and six grandchildren through the school, said she is tired of the LRPAC “proving negligence” over the years by postponing improvements and continually discussing school closures. But she said the support of Dumler and Snow gives her hope.

“With our support and them speaking for us, we cannot lose this time,” she said.

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