by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
“If there were a way to build two new middle schools without hamstringing funding for programs and staff, I’d vote for it,” said Sewanee school board representative Adam Tucker at the March 13 meeting of the Franklin County School Board. “I’m concerned funding for programming and staff will suffer, not just at the middle schools, but county wide.”
Tucker’s comment framed much of the discussion.
Confronted with the problem of the county’s two aging middle schools, the board investigated the cost of three options. Renovating the middle schools would cost roughly the same amount as building a new consolidated middle school, $35 million. Building new middle schools on the existing sites would cost $55 million.
Tucker presented funding figures for a fourth option, building two new schools, but not concurrently. With an estimated cost of $26 million each and a 15 percent property tax increase over 15 years, construction of the second school would need to be delayed for five to seven years. No property tax increase would mean delaying construction of the second school 11-13 years.
Building two new middle schools concurrently would require a minimum 20 percent property tax increase over a 25-year period. Funds available with the retirement of the debt for the new high school might make possible renovating the schools or building a new consolidated school without a tax increase.
“Renovating the schools is just throwing good money after bad,” said board member Lance Williams. “The middle schools suffered from design issues from day one.”
“Renovating won’t change the infrastructure,” agreed board member Chris Guess. Most of the money for renovation would pay for erecting a shell over the existing structures with very little spent on interior design.
Board member Sara Liechty expressed concern about the cost of heating and cooling unusable space in the poorly designed middle schools and inadequate wiring hampering technological needs.
“Renovation is out of the question,” Tucker said.
“I asked the teachers if they were willing to put up with no improvements,” countered board member Linda Jones, “and they said, ‘yes.’ It’s been overwhelmingly demonstrated to me that two small schools is what’s best for middle school age students.”
Jones also dismissed concern about disruption during the renovation process. “The kids don’t even remember it,” Jones said attesting to her personal experience as an educator in a school under renovation.
Portables to house students during renovation would add approximately $1 million to the cost.
Commenting on the drive to allow parents to use vouchers to enroll their children in private schools, Hopkins said, “We could spend a lot of money and then see enrollment decline. I want to do what’s best for students, but I’d hate to see a major tax increase.”
Dispelling rumors, Guess insisted teachers would not lose their jobs if a consolidated school were built.
“I want to see the cost savings devoted to programming and staff if we vote for building one consolidated school instead of two new schools,” said Tucker.
“We don’t have any control over that,” said board member Gary Hanger. “There are no guarantees.”
“In a perfect world, I would vote for two new schools,” said Williams. “The only way we’ll find out is to send it to the county commission and see what they say.”
“The board’s job is not to decide about funding, but to make the best decision for the students,” said school board chairman Cleijo Walker.
Sewanee resident Lisa Rung presented the board with information supporting the small school concept and a petition signed by 35 Franklin County residents advocating keeping the middle schools separate, even if that meant postponing building a second school until a later date.
“I was disappointed in the citizen response to the survey last fall,” said Hopkins. Only 103 people responded to a BOE (Board of Education) survey soliciting opinions about middle school solutions. “I’ve been surprised by the lack of constituent feedback,” Hanger said.
The board meets next on Monday, April 3 for a working session at the BOE Office in Winchester.