Town, school district and public meet to air concerns
Doty Park was host to around 30 people Saturday night as residents of the immediate area, known as Brownsville, met with town and school district officials to discuss the upcoming construction of Dorchester District 2 Elementary School 3.
The school is set to be built on the Alston Middle School campus, located off Hwy 78, and will be ready for students in 2015.
Shortly after the construction was announced in September, Town Councilman Aaron Brown called a meeting for concerned parties to discuss the upcoming changes. Key members of school district leadership were invited, including Superintendent of Schools Joe Pye. While some members of the community were asked to attend, most were unaware of the meeting, according to Earnest Walker, a Brownsville community member who was invited. He said Councilman Brown hosted a second meeting shortly after.
“I asked my neighbors if they knew anything about the new school and the ball fields, and to be honest 99 percent didn’t know anything about it. [The officials] said there would be another meeting, they sent me another letter, and I figured the community was going to be notified but I went to that meeting and only five of the actual community people were there,” he said.
To get the community input officials said they wanted, Walker decided to organize Saturday’s community meeting. He worked with the Community Resource Center and local churches to plan the event and invite community members to attend. Around 25 residents were there.
Also in attendance was Councilman Brown, Dorchester District 2 School Board Vice Chair Charlie Stoudenmire and the district Capital Improvements Facilitator Bob Folkman. Brownsville resident Bernie Mazyck served as the moderator.
“The school is probably the first and largest investment – both economical and physical – in the neighborhood for a long time,” Mazyck said. “It’s a significant asset our community will be participating in, so we though it’d be good for the community, the school district and the Town to have a conversation.”
Folkman led the meeting, giving a presentation on the 19.42 acre construction of the new elementary school, which will serve 960 students.
The construction is one of four new schools and 13 renovation projects the district is undertaking in its $186 million budget.
Elementary School 3 is being built to eliminate overcrowding problems, Folkman said, so the district has plans to build it as quickly as possible. To do that they’re using land the district already owns and a one-story architectural design.
He said the school will be complete and ready for use by August 2015.
“It will be a major improvement to that area,” Folkman said. “It’s a great focal point for this community.”
In order to complete the construction quickly, the new school will be built where the Alston baseball and softball fields currently are. During the construction the fields will be temporarily relocated behind Spann and Summerville Elementary Schools, Folkman said.
The crowd became uneasy, however, when he began discussing the proposed plan to put the ball fields back on the Alston campus.
“How will those ball fields benefit the community?” Walker asked.
“I see the community involvements in those ball fields and I’m doing everything I can to put the ball fields back into the community,” Folkman replied.
The designs he showed attendees featured one option for field replacement: between the rear of Alston, where the fields currently are, and Boone Street, property he said the district is trying to purchase.
He barely finished the presentation when residents began voicing complaints, concerns and worries about the plan. Their collective opinions were not in favor of the new ball fields.
Most of the concerns addressed light pollution, noise and late hours. The proposed site for the new fields would be incredibly close to residential properties in Brownsville. One resident suggested the district build a new library in the spot instead and abandon the idea of ball fields.
Folkman’s surprise was evident.
“If the community doesn’t want ball fields then you’ve just made my life a lot easier,” he said with a laugh.
The subject occupied most of the 1.5 hour meeting and it became apparent the issue was at the heart of the residents’ concerns.
As a compromise, they discussed two other options for the ball fields: making the temporary placement of the fields permanent, or moving the fields toward the northern end of the campus, away from the residential area.
Their main concern addressed, the crowd then touched upon the previous meetings, which Walker said inspired the community gathering.
“Those meetings had the entire board there… why weren’t we notified?” said Louis Smith, a resident of the area and the founder of the Community Resource Center.
“We picked a microcosm” of the school’s future attendees, said Councilman Brown. “The Board always intended to have a broader community meeting. There was always going to be another meeting.”
The residents were not satisfied with his answers and the meeting temporarily lost order.
Mazyck pointed out his house on the map – directly across from the Elementary School 3 property – to illustrate the group’s point.
“The immediate participants needed to be involved very early on. Those who live here have a concern about how this will interfere with our quality of life,” he said.
The discussion of the property location also raised the question of naming the new school. Much to the dismay of the attendees, Folkman said the school board is already accepting suggestions and the final decision will be made at their second meeting in January.
A breakdown in communication became the topic of the remainder of the meeting. Most residents said they were being unfairly excluded from information, using the school naming as an example.
Folkman tried to help the group by explaining the information is public and discussed at all school board meetings, as well as posted on websites.
But the community cannot access those types of information distribution, Mazyck said.
“The traditional form of communication for this community is through churches,” Mazyck explained.
Vice Chair Stoudenmire suggested the group have a representative attend board meetings and get into contact with the district’s public information officer.
Not all were in agreement though. Resident Mat Profit said his neighbors aren’t taking responsibility for their own problems.
“It’s a hard fact, but it’s true. You’re asking for the information but no one takes the time to read it. Tell me and I will put you on my [information distribution] list. We want to be as organized and purposeful as possible,” he said. “We’ve got to change our attitude.”
Profit, who’s a member of the district bond referendum oversight committee, mentioned reading The Journal Scene and attending school district board meetings as ways his neighbors can get information.
“You’ve got to be more involved with your community,” he said.
With most of their concerns aired and a proposed way forward on the table, the meeting adjourned. As a next step, the residents resolved to form a committee to lead the initiative for more information and higher community involvement. Both the politicians and the public agreed to be more communicative moving forward.