The Guilford County Commission voted to delay the passage of funding for new career technical education programs after parents of students at a public school for children with disabilities spoke out this week.

The Guilford County Commission voted 8-1 Thursday evening to delay a vote on whether to allocate funding for six new proposed career technical education, or CTE, academies after parents of students at Gateway Education Center advocated this week for funding to fix their school.

In February, the Guilford County School Board approved a resolution to create six new CTE academies as magnet school options. They asked the county commission to use $7 million from prior general obligation bonds, transfers from the general fund and other miscellaneous revenues remaining in existing project ordinances to create the new programs.

Commissioner Skip Alston said the board decided to postpone the vote to get more information from the school system.

“We want to see what the main priorities are,” Alston said.

Several parents of students at Gateway Education Center voiced their concerns at a school board meeting on Wednesday as well as the county commission meeting on Thursday, asking the boards to fund renovations.

On Monday, Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras said that she would recommend the school board to close Gateway, which serves students with significant disabilities from pre-K through age 22, after the district found issues such as water leaks, pest control, raw sewage, clogged toilets and poor air quality at the school.

However, during Wednesday’s school board meeting, Contreras changed her stance and said that the school would remain open after many parents spoke out.

“Closing Gateway should be a last resort,” said Cassidy MacKay, a parent of a student at the school during Thursday’s county commission meeting. “What I really just want to ask you guys tonight is for us to work together, to think outside the box and most urgently to come up with funds immediately to fix our beloved school.”

Contreras’s statement came days after Gateway parents received misleading calls and letters from the school’s principal stating that the center would close after this school year. A copy of the letter, which was uploaded to Facebook, stated that “school-aged students who currently attend Gateway will attend Haynes-Inman, a state-of-the-art facility starting in August of this year.”

“Certainly, I’ve made the best recommendation possible in order to keep these children safe,” Contreras said in the press release. “Nevertheless, Board Chair Deena Hayes and I agree: If Gateway parents wish for students to remain the building given the condition, we will not insist that Gateway students move from a building they love.”

Despite Wednesday’s session designation as a budget session without a public comment period, dozens of parents and advocates for Gateway filled the board of education room on Wednesday morning to protest the proposed closing of the school.

Supporters, who brought several current and past Gateway students, held signs with slogans such as “Fix Gateway, No Mold,” “I can’t talk but I have a voice” and “Fix and keep Gateway: What if it was your child?”

Dozens of parents and advocates for Gateway Education Center showed up to the board of education meeting on Wednesday. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

After Contreras made the clarification that the school would not close, board member Darlene Garrett made a motion to ask the county commission — which includes Board Chair Alan Branson who was at this meeting — to divert at least $2 million from money currently allocated for CTE programs to fix Gateway this summer, garnering enthusiastic applause from the audience.

“If the superintendent really wants to put her money where her mouth is, she will say right now, ‘We need to fix Gateway,’” Garrett said.

And while board member Linda Welborn eventually seconded the motion, the school board’s attorney eventually explained that because the meeting was a just budget meeting, that they could not vote on items.

When asked if the outpouring of support for Gateway swayed the board’s decision to delay the passage of funding for the CTE programs, Alston said yes.

“That’s one of the reasons,” he said. “And we wanted to see if there’s any way we can come to a win-win situation.”

Alston said that the board will wait until its next meeting on May 16 to vote on the CTE funding. In the meantime, he said that the county commission will meet with the school board to explore different possibilities.

Prior to the county commission meeting on Thursday, school board member Byron Gladden warned against the commission taking money from the proposed budget, which was released on Wednesday, to set up funding for Gateway.

He mentioned an evolving list of schools maintained by the board that ranks facilities by priority for renovations, insisting that the rankings should be followed.

In a phone interview on Thursday, Gladden reiterated the fact that fixing schools and finding funds to do so is a difficult and involved process.

“All of our schools are suffering from a lack of funding,” Gladden said. “Sometimes we pit schools against schools, and that’s not the mentality we should be having.”

Gladden represents District 7, which includes Gateway as well as Hampton Elementary, which was severely damaged in the April 2018 tornadoes and was recommended for closure by Superintendent Contreras this week. Gladden said Gateway parents are not the only ones that have concerns for their students.

During Wednesday’s school board meeting, Gladden elevated the voices of Hampton parents who could not attend the session.

“I wanted to uplift the fact that although Hampton parents could not be here physically, they have been calling. They have been emailing,” Gladden said. “I want to be very clear that Hampton does have a voice; it is very strong in spite of the socioeconomic conditions of east Greensboro, and Hampton is a sister school to Gateway…. We all have sacred cows and schools that we love and treasure, but if it happens to one, it happens to them all.”

Since being damaged in April 2018 Hampton has been closed, its students diverted to Reedy Fork Elementary. If Hampton closes permanently, students will remain at Reedy Fork or go to Simkins Elementary or Falkener Elementary, depending on their new school zones.

The proposed 2019-20 budget stated that a survey of Hampton parents in April showed that most wanted to transfer to Simkins or Falkener and that the proceeds from insurance will be used to design a new combined Hampton-Peeler school. A public hearing for closing Hampton is scheduled for April 30.

Gladden believes that a proposed bond referendum, which he says will hopefully be presented to voters within the next year, is the best way to fix schools with the worst issues. The last time voters approved a school facilities bond was in 2008 for $457 million.

“I want them all fixed,” Gladden said. “But there is a process. I’m hoping that the county commissioners respect that process. Don’t take from children to give to children because then we’ll have those parents coming to protest.

“We have to tackle the schools with the greatest needs first,” he continued. “We prioritize from the projects that absolutely cannot be put off anymore. Some of these schools are past patching.”

Gladden said that he supports Gateway staying open but that there is still a process for funding schools.

“I respect the organization of Gateway,” he said. “I respect how special Gateway is; all schools are special to us. But if the county commissioners touch that funding, we’re gonna have to tell students which programs won’t open.”

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