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Ombudsman program still looking for home after city council denies rezoning request

Where to go?

That's the question now confronting officials with Ombudsman Educational Services for nearly a week now, since members of Thomson City Council unanimously denied them conditional use approval for a leased building in the Thomson Plaza during their monthly meeting last Thursday night.

"I got plenty of calls from merchants," Thomson Mayor Pro Tem Alton Belton said. "I tried to do what I believe is best for everyone concerned."

Mr. Belton noted that he had visited CrossRoads Learning Center on several occasions through the years and learned that "you're dealing with children that don't like authority."

CrossRoads was closed at the end of this past school term in favor of privatization with Ombudsman.

Other council members concerned about the issue during the meeting included Clifford "Bud" Lunceford and the Rev. John Smalley. Mr. Lunceford made a motion to deny the request with Mr. Belton making a second.

After more than 40 minutes of discussion, the request was unanimously disapproved by council members.

"We're not throwing rocks at the Board of Education," Thomson Mayor Kenneth Usry said at one point in the meeting. "And we're not questioning the Board of Education."

One local merchant said he had spoken to fellow merchants and that they were opposed to a school being allowed to open in the shopping center.

"We're not against the alternative school," Scott Campbell, owner of Subway and the designated spokesman for merchants in the shopping center, told council members before they took action. "But I don't think the shopping center is the appropriate place."

Mr. Campbell noted that when he came to the shopping center nearly 15 years ago, the shopping center wasn't doing as well as it is today. He said merchants have worked hard to bring about the type of business that merchants now enjoy in the shopping center.

"We can't afford any negative problems," Mr. Campbell said. "We can't afford one incident."

Thomson Plaza co-owner Epp Wilson said he had telephoned a number of merchants in other areas of the state where Ombudsman runs centers, and received "glowing" comments in favor of the program, with the exception of one in Hinesville.

"We want what's good for the merchants in the shopping center," Mr. Wilson said.

With school doors slated to open on Aug. 8, representatives of Ombudsman are now scrambling to find another building so that they can be ready to operate a non-traditional alternative school in McDuffie County when the new school year begins.

John Wacha, assistant vice president for center operations with Ombudsman reported last Friday that the firm would be shown a building in the old Winn-Dixie Shopping Center on Tuesday. Another official with the firm, however, would only say that they are looking at a couple of possible sites as of Tuesday.

McDuffie County School Superintendent Mark Petersen said he hopes that a lease could be signed by (today) Thursday.

"We're still working with landlords and such to get the process a little bit further down the road before we officially say this is where we going to be," Allison O'Neill, senior vice president of operations for the firm, told The McDuffie Mirror in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. "We are making a lot of progress. We've narrowed it down to just a couple of locations. And we've talked with Dr. Petersen and the district is very comfortable with the sites that we've located and we're working with landlords to make sure we get in there quickly - in the timeline that we need to get in there the first day of school, which is our goal."

Ms. O'Neill praised those working to support their quest in finding a suitable building for the new school.

"We've got a great group of people that are on our team and the McDuffie County district has been very supportive of everything we are doing and we've got a great working relationship started," Ms. O'Neill said. "And it's through that team effort that we are going to get this going and ready for the first day of school."

As for the sites now being considered, Ms. O'Neill said she could not be specific about zoning issues that might have to be addressed.

"We are still investigating what the requirements are for the different spaces," Ms. O'Neill said. "Our goal is to make sure we are open on the first day of school, but also to make sure we have the right location for the students and for the district. I think we are going to be able to get over this hurdle and I feel pretty good that we have found an alternative that will work best and will serve the kids well."

According to their website, ESA's Ombudsman service offers personalized, computer-assisted learning for middle and high school students who benefit from an alternative learning environment due to a variety of issues, including truancy, credit or academic skill deficiencies, social and family challenges or learning/behavioral disorders.

During the April meeting of the McDuffie County Board of Education, members unanimously voted to close CrossRoads Learning Center and opted to enter into contract with Ombudsman to extend educational services to local students in a business environment. Mrs. Bradshaw had sought the change, saying that she had heard of the success of the program from school board members in other counties that she had spoken with at a state school board association meeting in February. She later presented the idea to Dr. Petersen.

At the council meeting, Mrs. Bradshaw explained that she thought a non-traditional learning environment might be better for local students.

Switching to Ombudsman is expected to save the local school system more than $300,000 annually, according to Dr. Petersen.

Web posted on Thursday, July 17, 2008

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