On Monday, as students across Fauquier County head off for the first day of class, it will be silent inside little Claude Thompson Elementary School in Marshall.
About 200 children who would have attended Claude Thompson instead will pack up their pencils and notebooks and join classmates at the nearby W. G. Coleman Elementary School. The children will form a "school within a school" as Fauquier's School Board decides what will become of Claude Thompson.
Debate over Claude Thompson Elementary, a red brick building opened in 1964 to consolidate seven small African American schools in northern Fauquier, has swirled for years. The school, which recently housed only kindergarten and first-grade students, had a leaky roof and cracking foundation. The well often doesn't yield enough water, and officials even have had to truck water in.
In 2001, the board agreed to renovate the building and convert it to a school for kindergarten through fifth-grade students, a project that they thought would cost about $3 million and was to begin this summer. But this year, after the board learned the price had risen to $8 million, that plan was put on hold.
At its Sept. 13 meeting, the school board is scheduled to make a final decision on the renovations. The board also is considering razing the school and building another in its place, or building a new school at an undetermined site.
During a public meeting last week in the Claude Thompson cafeteria, more than 50 parents, students and other members of the community turned out to offer their input on the school's future. Claude Thompson himself, the school's former principal and the man for whom the school was named, urged officials to revamp the building and preserve a piece of history.
"I understand your jaws dropped when it went from $3 million to $8 million," Thompson said. "It's a small school, been here for a long time, but it's well taken care of. I feel it's about time for us to get a piece of the pie."
The board's decision, in part, will come down to dollars, members say. The county's resources are being stretched as it seeks to serve a growing student population. A new middle school is opening in the county this year, and voters in March will consider a bond referendum to build a $40 million high school, Fauquier's third. In 2000, the county had 9,623 students; 10,519 are enrolled for the upcoming school year, said Mark Cornwell, assistant superintendent for administration.
Fauquier school officials say it will cost about $15 million to build a 600-student elementary school and about $9 million to build a 400-student school. The cost of constructing a new 400-student school on the current Claude Thompson site would be $9.1 million.
School Board member Robert L. Sinclair (Scott) said people in the community have strong connections to Claude Thompson Elementary and he believes the school system should stick by the 2001 vote, even with the jump in price.
"I think a commitment was made years ago that the school should be renovated, and I am strongly in favor of that renovation process taking place," he said. "That's always been a very special little school."
School Board member Sally Murray (Center) said she also favors preserving Claude Thompson Elementary. But she said a decision to renovate the school should be contingent on the determination that a donated well on land near the school will be able to serve the building.
"I personally feel very strongly that I would like to see it renovated because of its historic and heritage value," Murray said. "However, you can't have a school without water."
Whatever ultimately becomes of Claude Thompson, students are preparing to begin classes at Coleman, where 14 trailers have been set up to handle the influx, Cornwell said. He said the fourth- and fifth-graders will have class in the trailers, while the younger students will be taught in the main school building.
Each "school" will have its own principal and administration, Cornwell said. He said there are about 200 kindergarten and first-grade students and about 400 children in second- through fifth-grade.
Jessica Webb, who has two children who will attend Coleman this year, supports making Claude Thompson a full-service elementary school. Webb said that she understands the system is struggling to keep up with growth in the county's southern and central parts, but that she and her neighbors have been patient.
"It has been many years since the school needed some work, and we have waited a long time," Webb said. "I feel like they made us a promise."
Dee Griffith, whose daughter Kaila had attended Claude Thompson and will go to Coleman this year, said at last Thursday's meeting that, whatever the decision, the board needs to act. "We need to make a decision now so our children aren't displaced longer than they need to be," Griffith said.
Sinclair said he agrees.
"Bottom line, we need to make a decision in September," he said. "No more meetings, no more discussions. It's time for the school board to make a decision predicated on the best information available."