Originally created 01/18/98

Schools locked in debate



Priscilla Gresham and Helen Warlick live within two miles of each other in south Augusta, yet their thinking on the location of a new Richmond County high school couldn't be further apart.

To Ms. Gresham, a Creighton Place resident for six years, the new high school ought to be on Old Waynesboro Road, where work crews have been razing an old farm for the past four months. The school is scheduled to open in 1999.

"I didn't think it was an unsafe area -- unless they consider all of south Augusta an unsafe area," Ms. Gresham said. "I feel we need a high school out here because the nearest one is in Hephzibah."

But Ms. Warlick, whose Clanton Road home is in the shadow of Amoco Polymers and Ruetgers-Nease chemical plants, thinks the high school ought to move -- even if just a short distance. Right now, the site is about 1.5 miles from Amoco.

"To me, it's just sort of too close to all the chemical stuff," said Ms. Warlick, a Clanton Road resident since 1986. "Further on down Old Waynesboro Road probably would be better."

The Jan. 11 chemical spill at Amoco reignited debate over the new school's location, making such differences of opinion quite common last week. By Friday, school leaders who began the week wondering if they made a mistake in picking the 98 acres off Old Waynesboro Road were proclaiming no need to stop construction. Not surprisingly, Citizens for Fair Schooling, opponents of the location since last fall, continued to call for a delay.

As both sides waged their own battles for public acceptance, many residents said Amoco's accident was their first realization of the high school land fight. But the issue has been brewing for about three years.

New to the debate last week was concern about Gracewood Elementary and, to a lesser extent, Goshen Elementary schools, both open for years. Gracewood is about three-fourths of a mile from Amoco -- closer than the high school site -- while Goshen is about 2.5 miles away.

Opponents of the high school site had not mentioned Gracewood Elementary when arguing the Old Waynesboro Road location was unsafe, supporters of the location were quick to point out last week.

But just because it wasn't brought up before doesn't mean there isn't reason to worry now, others said.

"Two wrongs don't make a right. Because we have a school in a poor location now doesn't mean we should double or triple the odds ..." said Alan Jackson, president of Citizens for Fair Schooling.

But Ronnie Pond, a resident of Covington Place off Old Waynesboro Road for 18 years, said he sees no reason why the high school cannot open where planned because Gracewood has had no problems with the chemical plants.

"If they don't want to build a high school there, they ought to move the elementary school, too," Mr. Pond said.

Environmental studies done before the state education department approved the site last year rated the safety conditions as "excellent" and checked "no" when asked if there was industrial pollution or an airport hindering the site.

The state offers only guidelines to local systems choosing school sites, saying only to avoid sites "adjacent" or "subject to" airports, industries and heavy traffic. No definitions of those terms are offered by the state, leaving it up to local leaders.

"These are the guidelines, and they are interpreted and applied locally," said Pat Sandor, a state education department spokesman. "We don't even do a site review until the local system calls us and requests it. Then we do a site review on visual inspection only. We rely on information they have provided us."

Based on that information, the state school board approved the Old Waynesboro Road site last spring, letting the Richmond County school board proceed with buying land it had long sought.

Since 1995, trustees had said they were looking at James Weathersbee's farm in the 3800 block of Old Waynesboro Road as a possible school site, though they denied having already decided to pursue the land. The board also considered the Weathersbee farm several years ago but didn't have the money then to proceed.

Once the board began negotiating with the Weathersbee family last spring, one official termed the site "the worst" in terms of legal hurdles to clear before the land became board of education property. By Oct. 28, the school system had paid $459,000 to the Weathersbees for the land. The family and system are still in arbitration to determine if the Weathersbees deserve more for the land.

In February 1997, a Richmond County grand jury investigated how the school system went about picking the Old Waynesboro Road site and found nothing amiss, but criticized school leaders for not being more open about the selection process. Georgia law allows governments to keep real estate deals secret until a vote is needed to purchase or sell land, which then must be done in public.

"The business of the board on property selection isn't ever open," said Gene Sullivan, deputy superintendent.

The school system says the Old Waynesboro Road site is best because it allows for a racially balanced student population, required by the desegregation court order the board still must follow, has room for growth and will immediately ease overcrowding at Butler and Hephzibah High schools.

Plus, Mr. Sullivan added, "It was an easy build site, flat and level and it was approximately the size we wanted. It lets us spread our high schools out and not cluster them in a small area of the county."

Opponents say the site is too close to Bush Field, the chemical and industrial plants and heavy traffic off Georgia Highway 56. They argue a location near Fort Gordon is better, saying there are more students living in that area now.

"It's not just one issue," Mr. Jackson said. But, "This (accident) does confirm what we've been saying for months now."