By Dr. Peter Antinozzi (Guest Citizen Journalist)
A year ago this week, unfortunate circumstances led to an inspiring community engagement of government action. The circumstance was the Hanes Magnet and Lowrance Middle Schools, two middle schools sharing one site, resided on contaminated ground. Since 1991, the drilling of monitoring wells, reports on shifting contamination levels, and a proposed remediation plan had been buried in the archives of the Winton-Salem Forsyth School Board. After years of being out of the public eye, the trigger to fully disclose the history of the site was a bond proposal, the same bond you will be voting on this November.
It happened like this. In January 2015, the Board approved a plan to demolish a wing of the existing facilities and build a new structure for Lowrance Middle School. This recommendation was despite the Board’s knowledge that contamination levels had recently reached its highest levels in the site’s history and the school would be built squarely on the most contaminated area on the site. The public reaction was swift and fervent and they demanded answers. Facebook blew up. Town hall meetings were held and experts were consulted. A costly site safety assessment was ordered and in the end, the Board decided it was time to move all the students and staff off of the contaminated site. And it happened – quickly. With an incredible expression of community, the Board, administrators, staff, parents and students joined together to make the difficult work of the transition possible.
Today, the Hanes campus resides at the once abandoned Hill Middle School, approximately 5 miles south of its former site. The Lowrance campus is currently in borrowed space from Atkins High School. A temporary fix for a complex problem. The bond proposal that brought the site contamination to light is on the table again. On Wednesday night, the Board presented options to the Hanes Lowrance community regarding the future of these two schools. The proposed future of Lowrance is a shared facility with Paisley Middle, at the earliest to be completed in 2019 and contingent on the bond proposal passing.
Lowrance Middle school provides essential services for children with disabilities and these services fall under federal and state protections. Compliance requires adherence to federal law under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and at the state level through General Statues Chapter 115C. One of the tenets of IDEA is children who receive special education should learn in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This means they should spend as much time as possible with peers who do not receive special education.
As currently located in a wing of high school, the students of Lowrance are isolated from their middle school peers, which can be interpreted as non-compliant with LRE and IDEA. The consequence of non-compliance with federal and state law is sanctions, including eligibility to apply for and receive program funding. The Board presentation on Wednesday was very clear on the intent to build a new school. However, the presentation did not address the immediate issues of Lowrance. Foremost of these, has the Board provided adequate resources to ensure the school is providing legally mandated services to special needs children and families?
So that summarizes the discussion on the future of Lowrance. How about Hanes? Well, this is where the meeting turned. There was no proposal for Hanes. No proposal for the highly academically gifted program, no proposal for the magnet program and no proposal for the residential students. The parents and teachers voiced their concerns. They asked questions. Rhetorical questions albeit, since the Board’s policy is not to respond to public comments. Today, every residential student is required to find a way (whether by school bus or carpool) to get to the more distant site. The option of a short car ride with a parent on their way to work is gone. Walking, or riding a bike is no longer feasible or safe. This leaves a negative impact on accessibility to after school programs, athletics, and the overall community. This burden extends to the pocketbook at several levels. Transportation costs go up and the lack of a neighborhood middle school impacts property values. The Board offered no solutions for the residential students. No talk of a new school. No mention of rezoning. No offer of an after school activity bus.
What was billed as an informational meeting for the future of Hanes and Lowrance, provided too little information. The parent and teacher audience expected solutions (or at a minimum, options), but left with less confidence the Board was listening. The promise of information was the lure for the audience, the hook was selling points of latest version of the bond proposal. Time and time again the Board’s fixation with a bond proposal of electricians, concrete, and plumbing contracts detracts from the immediate safety and educational needs of our children. A demonstrated distraction since the last time the Board was making building plans, they forgot the report on their desks that stated “groundwater contamination under school reaches highest level ever!” The Board has about 11 months left to sell us their future construction projects in the bond proposal, but first they must sell us that they are listening and capable of solving today’s issues.
Dr. Peter Antinozzi is a parent of three current students at WS/FC schools (one at Hanes), a professor of biomedical sciences, and a candidate for the NC Senate in District 31.
You can read CCD’s coverage of the Hanes/Lowrance contamination HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.