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A plea for political action: Town hears arguments for, against school building project

By Tabitha Johnston - Chronicle Staff | Aug 13, 2021

Former Harpers Ferry Middle School principal Joe Spurgas speaks about the building project, based on his experience with a similar one he was involved with, in the War Memorial Building on Tuesday night. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Residents from throughout the Shepherdstown community filled the seats on the second floor of the War Memorial Building on Tuesday night, in anticipation of a public forum regarding the construction of new buildings for Shepherdstown’s middle and elementary schools outside of the town limits.

The forum, which was held by the Town Council at the beginning of their monthly meeting, allowed the community and Jefferson County Schools representatives to voice their stances on the matter.

Shepherdstown resident Ken Lowe has worked in local architecture for many years, and has been publicly advocating to change the Jefferson County Board of Education’s current building plans since the boards’ June 14 meeting. While Lowe said he got little response from the board during that meeting, his proposal fared better when he presented it before the Shepherdstown Town Council in its July monthly meeting. The council said they would consider passing a resolution in support of his proposal in the council’s next monthly meeting, to which the council would invite representatives from both sides to speak.

“We believe there is a question in the community, whether we should swap the [current Shepherdstown Elementary School] building [with the Shepherd Middle School building] and repurpose it,” said Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson, regarding Lowe’s proposal to allow the elementary school to remain in the town, by moving it into the current middle school building, after it had been retrofitted.

However, Gibson and the project’s chief architect, Randy Jones, indicated it was too late, at this point, for backing out of this project, without losing the funding that has been lined up to complete it.

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson, right, speaks in defense of the building project, as chief architect Randy Jones and Joyce White look on, in the War Memorial Building Tuesday night. Tabitha Johnston

“The voters in Jefferson County voted in approval, two-to-one, to approve the bond to fund the Shepherdstown Elementary School construction. There would be no funding from the bond or from the $7 million we were awarded by the Small Business Administration [if we changed our plans],” Gibson said. “So at this point, it’s not a possibility to use that money in another way.”

Gibson also indicated a number of tests and surveys had been conducted, regarding this decision, prior to the Board of Education purchasing a former farm outside of the town for the new elementary school and middle school to be built on.

However, many Shepherdstown residents in attendance disagreed with the Board of Education’s stance, regarding the need for Shepherdstown’s schools to reflect the current trend of building schools with campuses, as opposed to placing schools in pre-existing communities.

Board of Education representative Joyce White alleged that having schools within walking distance of students’ homes did not lead to many students taking advantage of that perk.

“There are forty eligible walkers at Shepherdstown’s schools, only 10 of which do it,” White said.

However, more than one community member indicated that, while they did not always walk their children to-and-from school, they occasionally took advantage of the option, to interact with other families and get some exercise.

“Ten people? No way. I’ve seen tons of people picking their kids up that way,” said father of three Derek Gallagher, whose oldest child is a Shepherdstown Elementary School student. “My wife walks our kid to school, I pick him up. The accidental conversations my kids get into on their walks in town are priceless — that’s community.

“Walking creates a community, it fosters a culture. You have to foster a culture where people can move,” Gallagher said. “I understand everybody doesn’t live in town, but for those of us who do, it’s very important. I know it’s idyllic, but I’d like my kids to be able to walk to school for as long as possible.”

Fellow parent Sally Mickey agreed with Gallagher’s assertions.

“I certainly don’t walk my son to school every day, but knowing that we can is one of the reasons thatI bought a house in town,” Mickey said. “It’s one of the most invaluable things we have in our community, to be able to walk our kids to school.”

After all of the input had been heard, the Town Council chose not to pass a resolution, thus allowing the Board of Education to continue with their project as-planned.