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Parents ask, ‘Tell us how to save Fort Lewis’

ROANOKE COUNTY – Passions rose inside the already-stuffy gymnasium at Fort Lewis Elementary as about 150 people gathered to talk with Roanoke County school leaders Sept. 26 during a community meeting.  With Roanoke County Schools looking for ways to save money, Fort Lewis is on the list as a possibility to be closed and students split between Glenvar Elementary and Masons Cove Elementary.

Roanoke County School Board Member David Wymer, who represents the Catawba District that includes Fort Lewis Elementary, addresses the crowd at a Sept. 26 community meeting about the school's future. - photo by Carrie E Cox

Showing their “Lion Pride,” Fort Lewis supporters wore blue-and-gold T-shirts and bought temporary tattoos sold at the entrance for 50 cents apiece.

Juli Carpenter, 6, shows off her "Save Fort Lewis" T-shirt and temporary tattoo. - photo by Carrie E. Cox

Jennifer Sova attended the meeting with her husband Thomas and sons Thomas, age 6-1/2, and Ben, 3.  “I don’t think questions are being answered,” said Sova before the meeting began.  “Where are they getting the figure of $450,000 from and how they’ll be saving that money by closing the school? I think they need to consider other options before taking  a seeming easy option.”

Young Thomas was quick to speak his mind on the matter, saying “I don’t want to go to a different school next year.  I want to stay in this school because I like it.”

Sova noted Thomas is in Melissa Cupp’s first grade class, and younger son Ben also benefits from the school thanks to the speech therapy lessons he receives there.

As the meeting got underway, Thomas Sova questioned School Superintendent Lorraine Lange and School Board Member David Wymer about their plans for more incoming students in the future.

Greg Micheal, who has been active on the “Save Fort Lewis Elementary” Facebook page, said he hoped the meeting would provide a forum for people to ask questions. Micheal, the legislative coordinator for the PTA Board, cited concerns such as no one providing details and numbers parents would like to see.

“The new schools would be over-filled and we’re going to wind up with trailers there,” he added, a fear common amongst many of those at the meeting. “This is a saving story” he said, “Save the heart of this 120-year-old school.”

Micheal’s two children who attend Fort Lewis are Brennan, a fifth grader, and Lauren, a second grader.

Parents also wondered what would happen in regards to the balance of the Literary Loan accrued during the school’s expansion in the 1990s.

“It is about a quarter of a million dollars that would have to be paid off if the school is closed” explained Tina Borne.  “Four years ago it was double the amount and was one reason they realized they wouldn’t save money on closing the school,” added Borne, whose children, Glenvar seventh-grader Madison, and Callie, a third grader at Fort Lewis, were with her for the meeting.

As the meeting officially got underway Dave Wymer, who represents the Catawba District on the Roanoke County School Board which includes Fort Lewis, Glenvar and Masons Cove, spoke to the crowd.

“There is no plan in place to close Fort Lewis,” he said. “This is just a possibility.  We’re currently looking at other schools for capacity, and trying to find the questions to the questions being asked.  We’ve got 30 options on the list and this is just one of them. There is no plan in place to close Fort Lewis.”

“This is like the expression ‘cut your hand off because your finger hurts” said James McIlwain, as he questioned the long-term effects that would be caused by the closing of the school.  Other parents spoke up and expressed concerns of increased waits at bus stops, crowded classrooms that would only become more crowded as the area continues to grow, while some even questioned if the school board had looked at the possibility of any of the students being sent to Salem schools due to the proximity of the houses to the County-Salem City line.

For Vicki Robertson, whose son is in third grade at Glenvar Elementary, the issue of space was a primary concern. “The rooms are already shoulder-to-shoulder desks. Where are these kids going to go?”

Wymer addressed space concerns, saying, “This is why we did a facility study, to see the capacity of the schools.”

As parents continued to inquire as to what other options the school board was looking at, Roanoke County Superintendent Lange noted that “a list has been published for the last four years.”  She went on to say that “There is no priority order” on the list, addressing the rumors that Fort Lewis’ closing is at the top of the list.  “Taking sports out, cutting teachers’ contracts, eliminating middle school sports, laying off teachers, changing student-teacher ratios, these are all on the list,” she said. “If we close Fort Lewis, we will be doing a lot more things on this list.”  She said seeing the school close isn’t something she wants to happen, a sentiment seconded by Wymer.

In one of the more heart-wrenching moments of the evening Britnie Carpenter addressed the representatives.  “My daughter Juli has learning disabilities and was at one of these other schools you’re talking about.  She wasn’t getting the attention she needed and so we switched her to Fort Lewis.  At first we were apprehensive about Fort Lewis, but now? My daughter can read, my daughter can write,” she exclaimed through tears.  “These aren’t statistics and numbers, these are our children.”

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