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Editorial: Enota school plan cultivates discontent
Gainesville school leaders too tin-eared, indifferent during construction debate
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In reviewing the dispute over construction of the new Enota elementary school and dismantling of its beloved Smartville Garden, let’s start by acknowledging how both sides have strong points, and satisfying everyone’s concerns was never going to be an easy task.

That said, the degree of ill will generated by the board’s final decision on the matter was exacerbated unnecessarily by secretive decision-making and a process that left many residents feeling ignored and irrelevant.

Gainesville City Schools leaders have committed funds to a new school building at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy, which is 60 years old and in need of an upgrade. The new building is expected to be ready by May 2018, with students to be moved temporarily to Centennial Arts Academy until the end of the next school year.

The new building is set to include 60 classrooms in two stories, about 130,000 square feet overall, at a cost likely close to the $17.4 million spent for the new Mundy Mill school, funded from the special education sales tax.

Yet in order to construct the new school and include all of the planned amenities, including expanded parking, the Smartville Garden will have to be uprooted. Many of its current plants will be preserved on other sites at homes or businesses, as feasible. The popular garden has served as a natural learning environment for students since it was created in 2008, a source of pride for students and faculty, and all agree it’s a shame to see it lost.

Despite the common desire for a new school building, many in the school community have rallied in support of preserving the garden. More than 1,200 signed a petition to have the school system hold off on the project and adopt a new construction plan that would save Smartville. They have written numerous letters to the editor and sought to have their ideas presented before the school board before a final decision was to be made.

Yet their idea to change the construction plan by reducing parking capacity and adding a retaining wall around the garden would add to the costs beyond what school leaders say is budgeted for the project. Thus, the choice was made last week to proceed with the original construction plan that makes it necessary to sacrifice the garden.

This issue is a clear example of what we often face in North Georgia: the march of progress threatening the natural beauty that makes our region special. In this case, it’s a manmade creation, yet connects students with the earth in a special way. For that reason, it needs to be preserved in some fashion for future students. But can that be done while building a completely new school campus?

Some garden backers have expressed concern the need for additional parking space is one reason the garden can’t be kept intact. That’s a metaphor unto itself, for sure — the preservation of a green world vs. the reality of personal transportation — but logistics again must win out. Faculty and staff have to drive to the school to work; Gainesville does not have a full urban transit infrastructure that would eliminate the need for ample parking.

Adding to a stew of acrimony is the manner in which some of these decisions have been made. In particular, the discussion to proceed with the original construction plan made by the school board was held in a called meeting few were aware of. A terse notice for the meeting was sent the morning before with no clear indication of the topic, in conjunction with a closed executive session said to involve “real estate matters.”

If the goal was to proceed without more public input, it certainly succeeded. With the discussion held without public participation, there’s no way to know which side individual board members may have taken.

This is another example of how the school system could have handled the matter more smoothly. Throughout the process, many siding with preserving the garden seem to feel leaders were not responsive to their concerns.

“When you have a strongly stated opinion backed up by more than 1,200 signatures, that calls for some kind of real engagement, and we have not seen that engagement,” Mark Fockele said in a recent Times story.

That seems to be the overriding sentiment. Even if destroying the garden was ultimately unavoidable, school leaders should have listened more intently and been more sympathetic and open to ideas on how to save it.

One example was a comment by Superintendent Wanda Creel that Enota students are denied the highest level of instruction because of the school’s aging infrastructure. That was interpreted by some as a slam on the faculty and students, which she clearly didn’t intend, but shows again how feelings were rubbed raw throughout the process.

Enota needs a new school, for the sake of students and faculty; that is not in dispute. Sometimes, sadly, one must tear down to rebuild. Attempts to preserve the Smartville Garden, while noble, don’t appear to be feasible or cost-effective. In the real world, those factors can’t be ignored.

Nevertheless, the school system could have shown more tact in dealing with those who still believe a natural learning environment is just as important as a state-of-the-art classroom. And some degree of compromise to preserve more portions of the garden might have eased the transition and earned more support.

An honest give-and-take between community leaders and concerned citizens should never be a one-way street. Let’s hope the lessons of this controversy will lead to a more open and inclusive debate the next time such an issue arises.

To send a letter to the editor, use this form or send to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas.

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