If someone walked into the Maryville City School board meeting Tuesday night with a check for $1.5 million, board member Doug Jenkins said he still couldn’t vote to start another Fort Craig School of Dynamic Learning - not right now.
“If today someone came in and said, ‘Let’s create a school of choice with a lower enrollment that costs more per student, I’d say no,” Jenkins said. “For 15 years, we’ve been able to do that. We’re just not at a time economically where we can do that. I’ve heard the concerns, and I see this as an opportunity. Let’s start the healing.”
The board voted 3-0-1 to close the school after the 2011-12 school year with member and Fort Craig parent Bethany Pope abstaining. Board chair Christi Sayles does not vote except in a tie.
Fort Craig was reopened as a School of Dynamic Learning in 1996 as a school of choice with an enrollment of less than 300 and a reputation for excellence, both on the part of students who excelled and teachers who used groundbreaking techniques and procedures to help students learn.
The prospect of closing the school came about this past fall after school system administrators realized there wouldn’t be money to open the new Coulter Grove Intermediate School, which is needed to relieve overcrowding at Maryville High School through a grade reconfiguration. The reconfiguration, also approved by the board Tuesday, Feb. 22, moves the ninth grade out of the high school and into the middle school with the eighth grade. It also creates two intermediate schools - the new Coulter Grove and the current Maryville Intermediate School - for fourth through seventh graders.
Board members were faced with a $1.5 million tab for opening the new school while keeping Fort Craig open, or $800,000 bill for opening the school if Fort Craig was closed.
Many Fort Craig supporters in the community voiced concerns that the system never really liked the school’s concept and was looking for a reason to shut it down.
Board member Charles West said there was a failure in leadership in the past because the overcrowding issue at the high school wasn’t adequately dealt with much earlier and because animosity was allowed to grow regarding Fort Craig.
“The Fort Craig issue, people talk about it and say they like it or don’t like it. They’re a great school. They’re not a cult, and the teachers are outstanding,” he said. “There’s been a short-coming of leadership, and it should have never gotten this way. To set up a school in a way where there is such animosity is wrong,” he said. “Any future school board members should take note.”
West said he dreaded Feb. 22 because he knew he would have to vote on closing a school he once attended. West said he spoke with city council members, principals, parents and grandparents. “The Fort Craig issue is tough, but in the end, we have overcrowding issues, and we have got to get Coulter Grove open as soon as possible,” he said.
West said he appreciated Bethany Pope’s attempt to postpone a vote on closing the school, but a decision had to be made. “I know there are some who just don’t like Fort Craig and will high-five closing Fort Craig, but I’m not going to be one of them,” he said.
Pope made a motion when the closing Fort Craig came up on the agenda to postpone the vote and create a committee to study the issue. Jenkins seconded her motion. “Yeah, I’ll second that,” Jenkins said, “but only for the purposes of discussion. I didn’t intend to do that, but Bethany, you’ve worked hard, so go for it.”
Pope handed out documentation outlining unknowns that the board hasn’t considered which might affect the situation with Fort Craig, particularly the cost of reopening the school as early as 2017. “If the economy improves, and people start moving into our subdivisions, overcrowding will happen fast,” she said.
But when the members voted on her proposal, it was defeated 3-1.
Before the vote on closing Fort Craig, some members of the community spoke for saving Fort Craig, while others shared their concerns for the overcrowding at the high school.
Sayles thanked the parents and members of the public for their input. “This has been a difficult, tough decision. I appreciate people who sent an email or 12, who took the time to meet with me at Vienna Coffee or at my own coffee table,” she said. “Our kids are better because you take the time to care.”
Board member Denny Garner thanked the teachers. “Throughout the challenges, one thing and one thing only you can always bank on: Maryville City School teachers always do a good job,” he said. “Thank you.”
Garner said that no matter how the board voted, it appeared someone was going to have hurt feelings. “I hate to hurt anyone’s feelings, but we have to do what’s best for all 5,000 students,” he said.