Residents and former residents of the Scarboro neighborhood are divided over whether to build the Oak Ridge Preschool at Scarboro Park. While some support the project, others are skeptical of the city’s motives and have signed a petition opposing the site. One resident asked for more time for discussion, at least a few more meetings, during a special meeting on Monday.
But the City Council voted 5-1 to select Scarboro Park as the site for the new Oak Ridge Preschool. That vote had been postponed during a regular City Council meeting two weeks ago in order to allow city and school officials to meet with Scarboro residents this past Thursday.
Council members and other officials have portrayed the preschool project as an opportunity, a $10 million investment in the community. City officials have said the site is centrally located, the land is flat and city-owned, and its crime statistics are a bit better than those at the first preferred site, Elm Grove Park.
They have pointed out that Scarboro Park is only a half-mile from the nearest fire station, and most of the park—about 85 percent of it—would still be a park. They said the park is large enough that the 40,000-square-foot preschool could be expanded and could include 20 classrooms. The park could still include the recreational amenities—basketball courts, tennis courts, and a youth-size baseball field—although they might be moved within the park, officials said.
There was support for the preschool project during the community meeting at the Scarboro Community Center on Thursday and special City Council meeting at the Oak Ridge Municipal Building on Monday.
“Education is one of the cornerstones that can change a kid’s future,” said John Spratling, a fifth-grade teacher and coach at Robertsville Middle School who said he supports the preschool project.
But there was also opposition—and requests for more discussion. The community is currently divided, and more information could help, said Jerri Mitchell, who said she is against the project right now.
“All I got from the (petition) signatures is they don’t know what’s going on,” Mitchell said. “It’s a life-changer. A few meetings to learn more is not too much to ask.”
The online petition opposes building the preschool at Scarboro Park. It had collected 131 signatures as of Wednesday morning. Organizers said additional signatures were collected and submitted to the city on Monday. They estimated there could be about 200 petition signatures total.
About 100 people attended the Thursday night meeting and 75 or so were at the City Council meeting on Monday. More than a dozen residents or former residents spoke at each meeting, and some spoke at both.
“We cannot allow our fears to sabotage this moment,” said Clara Chambles, who supports the project. Pointing out that it’s springtime, she used an analogy of planting seeds in a garden and then reaping what you sow. “This is an awesome opportunity to turn things around in this community…We see this as an answer to our prayers.”
Larry Gipson, who has been in Scarboro since 1949, said the preschool project “could be very positive for this community.”
But some residents and former residents have questions and concerns that they don’t think have been adequately addressed. Here are three of them: Is the city coming in to take over the neighborhood? Will the project raise property taxes for Scarboro residents? Is the city proposing to build the preschool in Scarboro for the right reasons?
During the two meetings in the past week, Scarboro residents wondered about gentrification and losing their neighborhood, and new rules that could change the character of the community. Will other developments or investors follow the preschool project, especially with Main Street Oak Ridge, the project to replace the former Oak Ridge Mall, under construction a short walk away, residents asked?
“We don’t believe you,” said Shawnee Lenoir of Alabaster, Alabama, who grew up in Scarboro and whose parents still live there. People don’t want to put anything in a black neighborhood considered full of drugs and crime unless there are ulterior motives, she said. There would be no development unless gentrification is planned, Lenoir said.
“We believe this $10 million preschool is just the start of a neighborhood takeover,” she said.
Here are some other questions residents had: Will people be cited for trespassing or loitering if they’re playing basketball at Scarboro Park near the new preschool at midnight? How will the preschool affect jail sentences for those charged with drug violations, particularly because of drug-free school zones?
One man pointed out that there were no black representatives making the decision on where to locate the preschool.
“I think there’s ulterior motives here,” said Charlie Bell, who lives on Hillside Road. Scarboro used to be self-sustaining, with its own business district, including a pool hall and club, supermarket, barbecue shop, gas pump, and picnic tables, Bell said. But the city-owned Scarboro Community Center is now where the business district used to be. He said the city had “annexed” that prime property on Carver Avenue.
“You all have lost the trust in this community,” Bell said. Only Council can restore it, he said.
There were questions about whether Scarboro is a crime-ridden community or “hostile environment,” or at least perceived that way, and what role the media, the city, and the police department have played in that perception.
“Would you want to put your kids in a hostile environment?” asked Clarissa Davidson.
She also worried about future development in the neighborhood and the potential that Scarboro residents could be harassed more.
“Five years from now, you all are going to come up with another thing,” Davidson said.
Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Agaki said the Police Department has “pulled the data” and presented it to City Council. Those statistics, shown to Council in January, said the area around Scarboro Park had slightly lower crime statistics in 2016 than did the area around Elm Grove Park.
“It is not a crime-ridden community,” Akagi said of Scarboro. “It is not a hostile environment.”
His wife works at the preschool, Akagi said.
“I think that she’ll be safe and secure in Scarboro,” he said, and so will the children and the rest of the staff.
Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch refuted the idea that city leaders, at least recently, have contributed to the perception that Scarboro is “crime-ridden” or “hostile.”
“I have never said publicly or privately that Scarboro is dangerous or is not safe,” Gooch said.
Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Rick Chinn addressed one of the concerns head-on during the special meeting on Monday.
“We’re not coming in there to build a preschool to try to arrest more black people,” Chinn said.
Although he sees the preschool as a good investment in the community, Chinn cast the one vote against selecting Scarboro Park on Monday.
“This is the best spot for the preschool,” Chinn said. But, “we have done a horrible job of communicating.”
The community doesn’t appear to support it, and there is a lot of angst, Chinn said. He thinks the preschool should be in Scarboro, but more education about the project is needed, Chinn said.
After about one hour and 45 minutes of discussion, all other Council members who were present voted to select Scarboro Park as the site of the new preschool. They were Gooch and City Council members Jim Dodson, Chuck Hope, Ellen Smith, and Hans Vogel. Council member Kelly Callison was absent.
Oak Ridge officials have said they can’t continue to keep the preschool at its current home on New York Avenue. That building, meant to be a temporary structure when it was constructed 70 years ago, needs many improvements to meet federal Head Start requirements, Oak Ridge Board of Education Chair Keys Fillauer said.
“To continue to stay in that current facility is not financially feasible,” Fillauer said Thursday.
The new preschool could be 40,000 square feet, and it could include a gymnasium, library, conference room, and warming kitchen. It could include 20 rooms, and it would include fenced courtyards. There are about 200 children who attend the preschool now, and about eight of them are from Scarboro.
Officials said they hope to increase that number. About 118 preschool students are funded from a Head Start grant from Anderson County, and roughly 80 are paid for by a state pre-K grant for four-year-olds.
Officials said the preschool in Scarboro would offer a chance to reach more students there and help the neighborhood grow. They assured residents they’re not trying to take over the neighborhood, and they’re not proposing to build the preschool to make more arrests or harass people. A school in a neighborhood stabilizes neighborhood values, officials said.
“This is not an ulterior motive for me,” Dodson said. “This is truly an investment…Our young people deserve an adequate facility.”
A school in a neighborhood “does “good work for the neighborhood,” Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said.
Hope said the preschool will represent all of Oak Ridge. It’s been in need of replacement for about 30 years, since the mid-1980s.
“It’s been put upon us,” said Hope, who would like to see the preschool expanded.
“My intention is to build a preschool in a good neighborhood,” Hope said. “There’s a lot of history. Most of that history is negative.”
But, he added, “It should be all of us in this together.”
In the past few months, some city and school officials have suggested they don’t want any more delays in the project, especially after 30 years and with federal funding possibly in jeopardy if the current preschool isn’t repaired or replaced sometime soon.
Before Scarboro Park was added to the mix this year, the other two sites that had been under consideration were Elm Grove Park and Scarboro Community Center.
Elm Grove Park had been identified as the preferred site after a joint city-schools committee published a preschool report in October 2015.
But a petition drive and recent opposition to building the preschool at Elm Grove Park had helped swing officials from that park off East Tennessee Avenue in east Oak Ridge to Scarboro Park. Before Thursday, city and school officials said most other considerations—cost, safety and security, transportation, etc.—were roughly equal at the two sites. The only difference, they said: People opposed building the preschool at Elm Grove Park, and they supported it at Scarboro Park.
That has changed in the past week or so.
Some of the discussion on Monday focused on ways to improve communications between the city and its residents. City and school officials have said the current preschool site selection process started about two years ago, and there have been many meetings and opportunities for public input. Scarboro was considered earlier in the site selection process but ruled out because, at that time, there was still a day care or early learning center at the Scarboro Community Center, officials said.
After that day care center closed last fall, officials briefly considered expanding the Scarboro Community Center but ruled it out in February because of the work that would be required to fill and level the site and, among other things, renovations that would be required to ensure the gymnasium meets fire codes for educational uses.
Not hearing any significant public opposition, or any at all, the Oak Ridge Board of Education selected Scarboro Park on February 27.
But some residents said people in Scarboro just weren’t aware of the preschool project, particularly the proposal to build it in their neighborhood, and they didn’t know enough about it. Scarboro Park has only been part of the current discussion for about a month, a more compressed timeline, at least compared to the discussion of Elm Grove Park.
“It really breaks my heart the way this whole proceeding has come about,” said Sylvia Ruppert.
The online petition, posted on Change.org, calls for a comprehensive vision that reflects the hopes and dreams of the Scarboro community.
“We would like City Council to start over, create a shared vision, listen to the residents, and then site the preschool separately,” the petition said. “Maybe something else is better suited for the site in question.”
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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