No decision made about use of Woodlawn School

By Allen Worrell

January 29, 2014

Eleven speakers spoke about their thoughts on the future usage of Woodlawn School Thursday during a public information session in Hillsville.

No decision was made by the Carroll County Board of Supervisors after the meeting on the more than 100-year-old school, which closed its doors as a public school last spring. The school and its ball fields are still being used by certain groups in the community, many of which spoke about the need to keep the facility open.

Prior to public comment, Supervisor Sam Dickson said there is a high cost of operation of Woodlawn, even as a closed facility. The total costs of the electric bill, water bill, insurance and other services add up to $117,000 per year, he said, and doesn’t include capital costs of $60,000 that need to be done to the building. Additionally, there are structural concerns with the facility that need to be monitored.

“What we are trying to do now is just heat the gym and that little lobby area, that’s mainly where people want to use it,” Dickson said. “And the gym can be the voting precinct rather than the cafeteria.”

The school was transferred to the board of supervisors in November. Since that time, the county maintenance department has worked to heat the gym, two classrooms and wrestling rooms separate from the rest of the school.

Citizens Speak

Matthew Tompkins spoke on behalf of his father, Joe Tompkins, head coach of the Carroll County varsity baseball team.

“In the last 20 years, Carroll County has made it to the region tournament in baseball all but two seasons, winning the district in 1994 and 2004, and winning the region in 2004,” Tompkins said. “Without the use of Woodlawn School, I do not believe Carroll County would be as successful as they have been.”

Tompkins said the Woodlawn gym is used for offseason conditioning, which allows players to be in shape once the season starts. During the season, the varsity and JV baseball teams practice in the Woodlawn gym when the weather prevents outside practices. The JV team also has all its home games at Woodlawn. Having the field at Woodlawn allows the baseball program to keep practices separate and allows both teams to finish by 6 p.m. when the activity buses run.

Without Woodlawn School, Tompkins felt the county’s athletic programs would be at an athletic disadvantage.

“If you take Woodlawn away, that would move the JV and varsity baseball, JV and varsity softball, 8th and 9th grade baseball, 8th grade softball, JV and varsity soccer - men’s and women’s - tennis and track, to share the middle school, the high school and Hillsville Elementary,” Tompkins said. “That is 13 teams in three schools that have to have their practice done in two-and-a-half hours. I feel without Woodlawn as a facility for use for the spring sports as a whole, it could be crippling to Carroll County at a competitive level.”

Brenda Quesenberry was the only speaker to speak against the continued use of Woodlawn. She attended a meeting several years ago at Woodlawn that’s purpose was to show Carroll residents the poor conditions of the school.

“We were told how they needed to get the children and staff out of the school before something happened and someone was injured or killed,” Quesenberry said. “In short, the building needed major repairs or to be torn down before someone was hurt. Now we are being told that students and others are still using the building. In closing, my husband and I would like to know why the Carroll County supervisors need to continue spending money on this building.”

The supervisors then heard from two athletes from Carroll County Special Olympics. Jeannie Ritchie explained that she plays basketball for the team and they use the Woodlawn gym to practice.

“We play basketball and we love Woodlawn gym,” she said. “We have played there a long time. Please allow us to keep playing basketball every Sunday at Woodlawn School.”

Teammate LaRae Hall echoed Ritchie’s sentiments.

“I am here to ask you to please allow our team to continue to practice at Woodlawn,” Hall said. “It is not only a place to play, but it is a place for us to be with our friends and celebrate our skills.”

As a member of the Carroll County Electoral Board, Keith Meredith said the board is required by law to give ample notification to voters if Woodlawn can’t be used as a voting precinct. New voting cards would also have to be sent out. The Electoral Board would need at least 60 days’ notice. Additionally, Meredith said Woodlawn’s gym does not meet accessibility requirements for the handicapped.

Meredith and his family have also been involved with sports in Carroll County for a long time. He said he would like to see the county maintain and retain the Woodlawn property.

Knowing that Meredith is also in construction, Supervisor Bob Martin asked if the county would be required to get rid of asbestos in a certain way if any were to be found in Woodlawn School.

“I know the school system at one time did do some abatement. It’s not cheap,” Meredith said. “You would have to abate the asbestos before you could do demolition and dispose. Those studies would have to be done and there are costs associated with those also.”

Martin also wondered if the county could keep the newer part of Woodlawn School and maybe do away with the older portions of the building.

“Part of the structure may be demolished in the scenario that you maintain the newer part of Woodlawn School,” Meredith said. “At some point there was discussion the school board did have reservation of relinquishing the property because the census data might show a school may perhaps need to be constructed back in that vicinity. Those are tough questions the board will be faced with, probably in the short term.”

David McPherson spoke as the father of a Special Olympic athlete. He said Woodlawn School has been extremely meaningful for a lot Special Olympians in the county.

“They have been meeting there for close to 13 years for almost every Sunday afternoon. It has been a fabulous facility for us,” McPherson said. “The court is in great shape. It’s the best gym around for us to use. My daughter has graduated from high school and it is one of her major social events of the week. It means a tremendous amount to her.”

Willis Rotenizer spoke on behalf of the Woodlawn Ruritan Club. He said the Woodlawn Ruritans were denied use of Woodlawn School’s cafeteria by a former principal.

“So we are at the mercy now of Woodlawn United Methodist Church to meet in their basement if they’re not having meetings, or in the picnic shelter, or Shirley Steele and the late Bob Steele let us go to their house,” Rotenizer said. “And we are asking for a place that we can meet along with all the other organizations because Woodlawn is just a great place.”

He said the Ruritan Club now was to rent the VFW for a spring bazaar at a cost of $300.

“We would appreciate this building staying open,” Rotenizer said. “It is needed by the community. Where else are we going to go? If any of you would like to see an old school building, ride out to Dugspur and look at the deplorable condition. It is sad to look at. It is a disgrace and we don’t want that.”

Toni Hall spoke as an assistant coach of the Carroll County Special Olympics basketball team. She said her daughter has been with the program for 11 years. It’s a second home to the Special Olympians, she said.

“This is where they celebrate their birthdays. Every month we have a birthday party in the lobby. This is where when my daughter’s grandparents passed away, she could go on Sunday afternoon and her teammates, friends and extended family were there to offer her support,” Hall said. “Every Sunday afternoon we have a meal for them in the lobby. For some of those kids, it may be the only hot meal they get from Friday afternoon when they leave school until Monday morning when they get back. Without Woodlawn gym, we don’t know where we are going to go.”

Sarah Jo Jones made a proposal to turn Woodlawn School into a central location called The Cavalier Center. The facility could be used for a water park, she said, and/or many of the classrooms could be used as an affordable day care center.

Many other possibilities could be incorporated into The Cavalier Center, she said, such as a café for young people with free Wi-Fi. The band room could be used as a movie theater.

“A lot of the people around here can’t go to the movies because they can’t afford it,” Jones said. “I don’t know if you’ve been to a movie in Mount Airy recently but it is outrageous, the cost.”

The center could also include a game room for arcade games. After School Enrichment and tutoring could also be offered there, as well as college and career prep courses. Other possibilities she mentioned included outdoor adventures, food court/catering, and mentoring services.

The Cavalier Center could also be a great place to hold events for youth such as dances, gaming tournaments, concerts, holiday parties, day camps, seasonal activities and talent shows.

“There is virtually nothing for kids in this county to do. There is great potential for social activities that would take place in a safe and controlled environment,” Jones said. “I have been offering dances for our kids, and I have on average 150 kids come to these dances. That goes to show you there is nothing for these kids to do.”

To pay for the center, Jones said a membership fee could be instituted similar to what the Carroll Wellness Center offers. She outlined a plan of needed employees to operate such a center, as well as a financial plan to make it work.

Vickey Ritchie spoke as the head coach of the Carroll County Special Olympics team. She said it was really important for the team to be at Woodlawn School. There are really only five gyms in Carroll County the team can use, she said, mentioning Woodlawn, the high school and middle school, Hillsville Elementary, and St. Paul.

“The reason we asked if we could use Woodlawn is because it was the most central because we had kids from all over the county,” Ritchie said. “We have 57 kids now, four teams. If we took away Woodlawn gym for rec league use, school use and our use, we would be trying to cram all those kids and their families into the other four gyms in the county. I really don’t think that is what we want to do.”

Jeremy Hendrick spoke as pastor of Camo Church, which brought the property behind Woodlawn School last year. He said the church’s goal is to do things on its premises that will benefit the whole area.

“It seems there are concerns with three areas… the gym, the regular ball field, and then the cafeteria,” Hendrick said. “And those are none of the facilities we have an interest in. We would support people using them.”

The church is looking for a way to bring an entrance in other than Raider Road “and coming out on that dangerous intersection at Hawks Carpet.” The church found an old ball field on the property that is a flag lot, different from the parcel that contains the school building. It contains a strip of land that could be used for another entrance, Hendrick said, noting he’s spoken with the county about buying the parcel or leasing it long-term.

“We would love to be able to get that facility, fix it up, and not only use it as a place for the church, but also for our community to use,” Hendrick said. “I don’t really think that conflicts with what everybody else wants to do with the facility.”

Supervisors’ Thoughts

At the conclusion of public comment, Supervisor Bob Martin said Woodlawn School has water and sewer and parking for several hundred vehicles. He said the land could be graded and you could “double or triple ball field space” easily.

“There is a tremendous amount of potential there if we can figure out how to put it together,” Martin said.

Supervisor Phil McCraw said he’s read where certain companies buy old school properties, remodel them and turn them into assisted living facilities or low-rent, medium-income apartments.

“That might be something Carroll County can consider with part of the facility,” McCraw said. “Hopefully we can keep the gym and ball fields for use in the county.”

Dickson noted Woodlawn has been looked at as a possibility for a water park, noting that the company hired to do a feasibility study would share their findings with the county on Feb. 25.

Chairman David Hutchins concluded by saying the price to keep Woodlawn open on an annual basis would be costly. Keeping it open would equate to between a half cent to three-quarters of a cent on the tax levy.

“I don’t want to leave it on a sour note, but I just want to say I think it is going to be really difficult, and it is going to be probably a very emotional decision for everyone, particularly for those who have ties to that community. At some point and time we will have to make a decision.”

Allen Worrell can be reached by calling (276) 728-7311 or on Twitter @AWorrellTCN.