Alachua County School District leaders on Tuesday heard public feedback on a proposal that would house displaced Howard Bishop Middle School students in portables on the Westwood Middle School campus next fall.
Howard Bishop is undergoing renovations beginning next fall, and they are projected to last at least a year.
Under the plan, nearly 600 Howard Bishop students would be moved to portables outside of Westwood Middle School. Although the two areas would be separated by an eight-foot wall, many parents were still concerned about the effects from an influx of students.
The Westwood Middle School Parent Teacher Organization led a meeting Tuesday night where parents and others from the community voiced their concerns about the plan. While other schools in the area have had similar arrangements (for example, Idylwild Elementary students being housed at Prairie View Elementary), many parents in attendance disagreed with the proposal.
They had too many concerns.
Westwood Middle School is surrounded by two busy two-lane roads.
Some parents argued that the higher volume of car traffic the move would bring is unsafe, while others who lived nearby said they feared that entering and exiting their neighborhoods would be more difficult.
Scott Simmons, a parent of three graduates from Alachua County Schools, said this plan doesn’t account for solutions in the roads surrounding the school with its traffic and congestion.
“We should’ve been hearing things today like ‘Yeah, we’ve talked to the city people and the traffic people, they’re gonna review and look at it,” he said, but that’s not what he heard.
When met with discontent over this issue, school officials highlighted the possibility of creating a staggered start to space out traffic. That idea, too, went over poorly, with people saying it would still make traffic worse and for longer periods during school days.
The Westwood PTO Meeting consisted of talk about portables used to house displaced Howard Bishop Middle School Students. This map demonstrates the suggested layout of these portables @WUFTNews pic.twitter.com/JvnN854EHo
— Violet Comber-Wilen (@ComberWilen) December 4, 2019
Another point people reiterated was what they called a “lack of transparency” from the district’s leadership. Several people attending the meeting claimed that there had been little communication about the plan prior to the meeting, and that the quick-moving nature of the plan seemed odd.
Gainesville City Commissioner Harvey Ward was in attendance at the meeting. He has children who are in middle school. He said that although he respects the school board’s decisions, he is worried about how quickly this project has been introduced.
“We are very far along in the process, and I’m becoming more and more concerned as a parent and a commissioner,” he said.
Ward tried to encourage school district leaders like Superintendent Karen Clarke to add more voices to the conversation about the plan before finalizing it.
Michael Andreu lives in a neighborhood near Westwood and said the plan already seems final, although he feels this is the first people have been alerted of it.
“There has been zero transparency on this whole process. The school board has just given local people that live in this area notice only weeks ago,” he said, “and we’re just hearing about this, and supposedly contracts will be signed on this on December 17th.”
Andreu and others want more opportunity to provide input or offer alternative solutions to the situation.
The school district’s response
While many people voiced their discontent, School System officials claimed that this option was arguably better than its alternatives.
Paul White, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations, said the plan will be cost-effective and ultimately provide a more modern school environment for both middle schools.
“It is better than any other alternative from the standpoint of cost savings, on the standpoint of the speed in which you can get the school done and get the students and teachers back into a modern facility,” he said.
After the renovations on Howard Bishop Middle School are finished, students will return to school in their new building, and Westwood Middle School students would move to the remaining portables while their school is then renovated.
This project is funded by the a half-cent sales tax that voters approved in 2018. White said the ballot initiative promised equity for every child in every school — meaning each school’s renovations will be to modern standards, regardless of parent income or the part of Gainesville where students live. The project is funding the renovations of 42 schools in roughly 12 years, which White described as part of the reason this plan is being pushed with urgency.