THOMASVILLE — There were hugs, handshakes, smiles and a sense of celebration as a capacity crowd filed out of the Thomasville High School cafeteria Monday night.

The Thomasville Planning and Zoning Commission denied a rezoning request that would allow the old Magnolia School property to be turned into a boarding school. The commission’s recommendation to deny the request will go before the Thomasville City Council.

More than 300 people attended the meeting to hear the commission’s ruling on the proposed boarding school, an issue that has become a source of controversy as of late. Several at the meeting — many who are residents of the Magnolia area — spoke in opposition of the proposed changes.

“We have lived in the Magnolia community for more than 40 years,” Rosemary Boykins said. “Our children grew up here and attended the public schools here, so we have a vested interest in this neighborhood. We believe that the proposed site is unsuitable for a boarding school.”

The rezoning request was made by Dr. Harold Dabel and Doug Pennock, both of South Carolina, who would like to use the facilities for a Christian boarding school. They currently have a contract with the Thomas County School System — which owns the property — to purchase Magnolia for $750,000.

However, the contract with the school system to purchase the property is contingent upon whether or not it will be rezoned. Both Dabel and Pennock spoke at the meeting, answering the commission’s questions concerning the proposed boarding school.

Dabel said he was interested in honoring the historical significance of the school.

“We intend to maintain the Magnolia-Chappelle School grounds without disturbing the current monuments and plaques. In fact, we would like to highlight the old school,” he said.

The boarding school would house students from 14 to 18 years of age who would receive 24-hour supervision and a faith-based education at the site. Dabel said a local advisory committee would be selected to help govern the school and the jobs created would provide an economic impact for the area.

Pennock said the proposed boarding school would not be a depository for students with severe drug problems or brushes with the law. Rather, it would be a place where students with special needs can have the chance at success, he said.

“There is an extreme demand, and I’m afraid to say it’s a growing demand, for parents to find a safe haven for their children where they can be educated, where they can be safe and away from the negative influences surrounding them,” Pennock said. “We would not deal with adjudicated kids. It would certainly not be a prison.

“We would not be putting up any kind of containing walls. That is not our mission.”

Boykins said the boarding school would create an unsafe atmosphere for children and senior citizens in the area. She also said the tranquility of the neighborhood would be disturbed and property values would plummet.

Citing newspaper articles from across the nation, Boykins told of instances of child abuse, improper business practices and the use of behavior modification at other boarding schools in the U.S. She said there is a need for boarding schools, but not on the proposed site.

“I am not opposed to this school. I am opposed to it being located in our neighborhood,” Boykins said. “I’m a retired educator and I am sensitive and aware of the need of serving all children. We just don’t want it in our neighborhood.”

Area resident Monica Rainge called the proposal a “smokescreen” for a bigger issue at work.

“The presence of an undesirable development on the African-American side of town is simply what we call environmental dumping,” she said. “It is taking the most undesirable uses of land and placing them on people who have traditionally been politically, socially and economically powerless.”

Rainge said the act of environmental dumping could be found in virtually every city across the nation.

“I want this board tonight to see beyond the smokescreen and say that Thomasville will stand up,” she said. “There are people together here tonight to say that our community does matter. We understand that people from all walks of life should have the ability and the right to participate in the decisions which affect their families, their communities and their homes. These are people who have worked hard to attain the homes they own on the south side of Thomasville.

“They are just as valuable as the people who live on the north side of town.”

The Thomasville Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously to deny the request, “based on genuine concerns ... in reference to the ability of the applicant to establish and operate a private boarding school that would promote the health safety and wellness of the general public,” commission chairman Bill Dickey said.

The city council will consider the commission’s recommendation Monday, March 13, at 7 p.m.

To contact reporter Brewer Turley, call (229) 226-2400, ext. 226.

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