New Castle News

October 29, 2012

Mitchel Olszak on Your Schools: Lockley vote leaves major mess

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — So now what?

Last week’s vote by the New Castle school board to kill the Lockley school consolidation project — followed by the decision of superintendent George Gabriel to resign — leaves a lot of questions in the city school system.

And it leaves a fair amount of anger, frustration and confusion.

For a couple of years now, the district has been moving haltingly toward a major expansion and renovation of the Lockley elementary school. The project would coincide with the closing of other elementary schools in the district, essentially creating a single elementary facility in New Castle.

A key factor in this proposal is the deteriorating condition of the district’s elementary schools. Members of the administration have said that based on funding formulas and assorted expenses, it would be more cost effective over time to pursue new construction at Lockley and close the other schools than to make repairs and renovations.

But this plan never enjoyed unanimous public — or board — support. Considerable skepticism exists over the notion of building a new school in New Castle, where student population has experienced a long decline with no reversal of this trend in sight.

Plus, there are still residents who are unhappy with the decision to demolish and replace the old New Castle High School. The new structure is now running at about 60 percent of capacity, which adds to doubts about additional construction.

Final approval for the Lockley plan hit a snag when bids came in higher than anticipated. After the project was massaged a bit, a second round of bidding brought back numbers closer to the mark at roughly $23 million.

But this failed to impress a majority on the board. And by a 5-4 vote last week, the Lockley project was rejected.

In reaction to that — along with indications some board members were looking for a change at the top of the administration — Gabriel submitted a pre-written letter of resignation. Without fanfare, the same five members who shot down the Lockley plan accepted Gabriel’s departure, effective Jan. 31.

So is the Lockley project truly kaput? That’s difficult to say. While some board members have been adamantly opposed to it, others have been inconsistent. Maybe they’ll switch again. Maybe not.

What I do know is the Lockley opponents now constitute the majority on the school board. And they owe it to the public to explain where they stand and what’s going to happen now. They were oddly silent on these matters at least week’s meeting.

Whatever one thinks of this proposal, last week’s vote was a big deal on very serious and expensive matters. The district has spent about $1.5 million on architectural and other preparatory work leading up to the actual construction. The vote vaporizes this money.

What do taxpayers think about that?

Obviously, if the project was not to be pursued, this money never should have been spent. It represents poor planning and poor leadership.

Speaking of which, I think blame for the current mess can be spread around. Only token efforts were conducted by the administration and construction supporters to bring the public or the larger community into the fold. Five votes on the board were deemed to be sufficient.

So now we have a divided, angry board and a divided, angry public. And because matters pertaining to the New Castle school district are steadfastly avoided by other local officials and entities, I’m wondering where the leadership is going to come from to resolve this mess.

Any ideas?