New schools could cost $17 million

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

By Karen Hall

Staff Writer

Cautious enthusiasm was expressed by County Commission Education Committee members after they listened to the director of schools' $17 million proposal for new school construction last week.

The school board's maintenance committee held a joint meeting with the education committee Thursday, and the only item on the agenda was the presentation of the school building project.

"It's a lot," admitted schools director Jackie Abernathy. "But it's what we need to continue and meet the needs of our students. We're here tonight to hear what you think. We don't want to spend more time until we have your support."

Abernathy's proposal includes an intermediate school in Chapel Hill for grades four to six; replacement of the old gym and front wing at Forrest School; and additions to Oak Grove and Marshall Elementary Schools.

By building an intermediate school in Chapel Hill, overcrowding will be alleviated at both Chapel Hill Elementary and Forrest, and the sixth graders (currently housed at Forrest) will get a better education, the director said.

"Is sixth grade at Forrest not getting the same services as sixth grade at other schools?" asked education committee member John Christmas.

"No," answered Abernathy. "It's very different because of the scheduling. The sixth grade test scores at Forrest are not where we would like them to be."

"What will be the cost to staff the new school?" asked Commissioner Mickey King.

"We'd need a principal, someone for attendance and book-keeping, a secretary, and a guidance counselor," answered Abernathy. "Remember, this is two years down the road."

Board member Harvey Jones Jr. confirmed what the director said about overcrowding in the north end of the county.

"We're busting at the seams everywhere up there," Jones said. "We're not really helping the sixth graders, but we cannot do anything without support from you all."

Abernathy showed the group a proposed sketch of an intermediate school and pointed out it does not have a flat roof.

"This was built somewhere else," she said. "We could save the price of an architect if we built the same thing."

She pointed out this plan also includes geothermal heating and cooling, which costs an extra $500,000, but the payback in saved energy costs only takes two years.

Commissioner Tom Sumners asked where the system would build the intermediate school, and Abernathy told him it would be behind Chapel Hill Elementary, on land already owned by the school system.

Moving on to reconfiguring the elementary schools in Lewisburg, the director pointed out the academic, economic and social advantages of distributing the grades so that Oak Grove houses Pre-K, kindergarten and first grade; Westhills has grades two and three; and Marshall Elementary has grades four through six.

Reconfiguration, which was approved by the school board Monday, would require additions at Oak Grove and MES.

Fewer grades at each school, Abernathy explained, would give teachers and administrators a better chance to focus on "what kids are really supposed to be learning." She said teachers reported getting the most benefit from in-services where teachers of the same grade level worked together.

In the reconfigured elementary schools, Abernathy said, the teachers could share materials, software and best practices, and, by focusing on fewer levels, "become the academic leaders we need them to be."

A further advantage of the reconfiguration could be a reduction in the numbers of teachers required by as many as seven positions.

"Are we planning far enough ahead?" asked King.

"We're planning for 10 years," Abernathy said. "There's no point in going further until we know how supportive you can be."

"We've got to do something," said King. "How are we going to fund this? Raise the wheel tax? The money drives it all."

"We've got to have it," said Commission Chairman Jeff Taylor. "We've got to find a way to make it happen."

"We could do some scenarios," agreed King.

"Are you supportive, if the budget committee can fund it?" Abernathy asked.

"If we can finance it without upsetting everything, I can support it," said King. "We need to see what it will do to the budget."

"We could bring the commission together and lay it out in a workshop," suggested Sumners.

"We also need some numbers to look at," added Commissioner Micky King. "We could let Steve Bates look at them. Bates could come to the workshop."

Commissioner Dean Delk agreed with the inclusion of Bates.

"He knows where the money is," Delk exclaimed.

"I appreciate you all coming," said building committee chairman Randy Perryman, "I appreciate your support."

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Perryman said the $17 million estimate was probably on the high side, and could be brought down by a competitive bidding process. He stressed everything was dependent on the county commission deciding to move forward.