Board decides not to rezone schools
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Aug 8, 2014, 11:17
HOPEWELL — A group of parents gathered at Patrick Copeland Elementary School on Tuesday evening to speak on the possibility of rezoning students from Dupont Elementary to the very school in which they sat. However, after more than an hour of questions, some tears, along with anger, the School Board reached a decision not to take any action.
At the School Board meeting on April 10, Dr. John Fahey, superintendent of Hopewell public schools, told the board that Dupont Elementary School has more than 720 students, with Patrick Copeland at 660 and Harry E. James at 680 students. Fahey noted, that to his knowledge, the population at Dupont has never been that large.
“It’s really a matter of a few streets that could really equalize the population,” Fahey said. He added that a number of students live a few blocks from Harry E. James but, due to zoning restrictions, have to take a bus to Patrick Copeland.
Since that meeting, the board had not found a solution to address the large number of students. With just three weeks until the doors at Hopewell City Public schools open, the board held a public hearing to discuss the possibility of rezoning and transferring students from Dupont to Patrick Copeland.
“We have this small school with the most amount of kids,” Fahey told those in attendance. The other elementary schools have about 3,000 more square feet than Dupont, with Patrick Copeland designed with the ability to build an addition.
“Patrick Copeland is designed to add a whole other wing to it and if Hopewell continues to grow, this is the school that will grow in population,” he said. The addition to the school would cost around $5 million.
Another cause for the need to fix the overcrowding at Dupont Elementary and get the class size down is a large chunk of money. The division receives $1.37 from the state to keep the kindergarten to second-grade classes below 20 or 21. During the previous school year, Dupont had a class of 26, the largest in all of the elementary schools.
“I would want my children in class sizes that are as efficient as possible rather than overcrowding classrooms,” Fahey said, after stepping down from the stage, indicating on a map where the proposed changes would be located.
Forty is the number of children needed to balance the population at all three elementary schools.
Once Dr. Fahey gave his presentation, the parents did not hold back with their thoughts on the possibility of their child attending another elementary school, with just three weeks left until they were to board the school buses.
Many in the room also said many were not notified of the meeting, indicating parents who should have been made aware of the public hearing were not in attendance and did not receive letters alerting them of the possible change.
“I don’t want to leave Dupont,” Scott Mitchell said, indicating his family has been attending the school for seven years.
Sue Mitchell, Scott’s wife, also spoke and echoed the thoughts of her husband, never losing the passion in her voice for the desire to stay right where they were at Dupont.
“I am an involved parent. I am a full-time working parent,” she said. “It’s not enough time for me to rearrange my work schedule again and day care arrangements. It’s not enough time.”
With that comment, the room filled with mummers of agreement, with many asking the board why it has taken so long to hold a public hearing on this matter.
“I have spent the whole summer preparing my son for Dupont,” one concerned parent told the board. “I have been talking to him about how his sister went there. He’s excited and then three weeks before school starts, to tell him, you’re not going to Dupont.”
Dr. Deborah Marks, board member, hearing the various concerns from the parents, began to add solutions to the discussion, bringing up an addition to Hopewell that the city has yet to see at any of the schools.
“If we put trailers there, we could do it,” she said. “... You know this is where we’re going to go. If we keep them there, we’re going to have to do something that drastic and no school in this city has trailers right now.”
Parents even tried offering up solutions, with many agreeing that the new development at Langston Park, slated to have 56 new units by next year, should all be zoned to Patrick Copeland instead of Dupont.
Chairman of the board, Dr. William Henry, was candid with parents as he said that the board did not even want to be facing this decision.
“We wish we didn’t have to do anything,” he said. “Believe me, we’d rather not have to change anything.”
Despite an alternative solution provided and the chairman’s honesty, parents were still unsettled.
Renee Hutchings spoke of her grandson, who suffers from autism. She said her grandson needs special care and has bonded with the teachers from Dupont and moving him out of the school could potentially lead him into a dark place.
“It looks like you took a machete and cut it for your convenience,” she said, referring to the rezoning map hanging on the wall. “And you didn’t use a surgeon’s knife, which would have affected a lot less people and caused a lot less damage.”
“Pretty much every teacher at Dupont knows our family.”
“For some kids, it’s the only friends they have.”
These comments began to fill the room and then mother Roxanne Smith took the microphone to continue the story started by Hutchings. Even though there were tears in her eyes, Smith spoke with conviction in her voice.
She told the story of her son who has been diagnosed with autism. She said at the other school in which he was enrolled, he “tore it apart.” Smith said he did not have friends and displayed an anger that she did not know how to handle.
She said when he came to Dupont, he opened up and trusted his teachers, something she said he has never done before. Smith said he even got As on his report card and came home to share stories of his friends.
With that her voice cracked as she told the board perhaps the most touching moment was when her son began to smile again.
“I don’t want to lose that,” she said. “He needs to be there. This is just for your convenience.”
Dr. Fahey, almost appearing as if he stepped out of his role as superintendent and into the role of a father, told Smith he knew the reason behind the tears.
“I’m the father of an autistic child who is 30 years old and I’ve lived exactly what you live everyday. I have lived it everyday for 30 years, so I’m not going to do anything to hurt kids. I’ve lived with an autistic child for 30 years and I hope and pray everyday that he’s OK.”
Vice Chairman Christopher Reber told the parents this was not easy for any member of the board, wishing that an answer were simple.
“This is hard. It’s hard for me,” Reber said. “It’s hard for everybody on this board. We don’t want to talk about this. I can’t tell you what the answer is. I can’t tell you what we’re going to do.”
At the end of the meeting, the board decided to take no action. The students at Dupont Elementary would not be rezoned to Patrick Copeland.
“We listen to the public. The board did. They’re the ones that made this decision,” Fahey said. “They never took action. They just put this out there as one possibility and based on public input they decided there was no action needed. ... Based on the input of the public, they took no action, which means we aren’t going to rezone it.”