When it rains, say Guilford County Schools officials, it pours at Gateway Education Center.
They say “chronic water intrusion” and other problems pose health and safety hazards at the school, which serves special-needs children. So Superintendent Sharon Contreras initially had recommended closing Gateway, effective next school year.
That prompted a flood of a different kind. During a school board budget meeting Wednesday, parents holding handmade signs filled the room at the school administration building on North Eugene Street and spilled into the lobby. They professed their strong bonds with Gateway, and a deep appreciation for what it has meant to their children. And they didn’t want to move.
“I have a really hard time believing this is the only way forward,” Gateway parent Cassidy MacKay wrote in an email to the News & Record.
Following the extraordinary display of concern from parents, Contreras rightly reversed her earlier recommendation and announced that parents now would have the option to keep their children at Gateway or enroll them at three other schools that serve special-needs children.
So, how did it come to this? Certainly, health and safety concerns shouldn’t be ignored. In addition to problems with leaking water, a Guilford County Schools news release says, are “pest control, raw sewage, clogged toilets” and a roof that needs replacing. In an assessment of school facilities, the Gateway building rated “poor.”
In fact, Contreras testified before Congress in February that nearly half of the school system’s 126 schools are in unsatisfactory or poor condition. The total cost to fix them? A staggering $1.5 billion.
Still, some parents say they felt blindsided about Gateway Center’s future. The school’s principal and staff members did call parents in advance to inform them of the proposal to close Gateway. But those parents didn’t want merely to be informed about the recommendation. They wanted to be involved in it.
Gateway is an especially sensitive situation because of a child is apt to spend more years there than in a traditional school setting, some for as long as from prekindergarten to their early 20s. Then there is Gateway’s history. When it was founded in 1983, it was considered one of the best such facilities in the Southeast.
So, even though Contreras has been dealt a bad hand when it comes to school facilities, the superintendent and her staff will need to engage the community openly and proactively about the difficult steps ahead.
“Although it may not have been intentional,” Addy Jeffrey, the parent of a Gateway graduate wrote in an email to the News & Record, “it felt like the students and families were disrespected because their voices were not included in this abrupt process.”
Meanwhile, one proposal that was broached last week may help keep Gateway open and make it safer for students and staff members. School board member Darlene Garrett suggested that Guilford County commissioners use $2 million in leftover funds that had been considered for career-tech renovations to instead make repairs at Gateway. It’s an option that’s worth considering — in an open, constructive dialogue including all of the stakeholders.
Would everyone be happy? Probably not. But they would be heard.