​School Board Votes to Consolidate Middle Schools

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

At the May 8 Franklin County School Board meeting, the board voted 7 to 1 in favor of a resolution requesting the County Commission authorize a $37.5 million bond to fund construction of a consolidated middle school to replace the two aging middle schools currently serving the county. Prior to the vote, Director of Schools Amie Lonas reviewed the proposed 2017–18 budget, projecting expenses would exceed revenue by $2.5 million.
The shortfall would require the school district to draw on the reserve fund balance expected to be $4.9 million at the close of this fiscal year. Lonas recommended the board request additional revenue from the County Commission—“If we keep drawing down the fund balance each year, we’ll fall below the minimum required level.” By law, the school system must have a fund balance equal to 3 percent of its budget, with that threshold $1.3 million at present.
Depleting the fund balance was among concerns highlighted in the consolidated middle school resolution prepared by Sewanee school board representative Adam Tucker. The resolution pointed to the “significant structural issues” at the two middle schools and argued renovation of the schools “would not be a prudent use of public funds.” The resolution also stressed that implementing enhanced programming needs at two middle schools “will cost nearly $400,000 per year more than implementing these same programs at a single consolidated middle school.”
Board member Linda Jones took issue with not receiving the resolution until just before the meeting and language stating supporting arguments were the opinion of “the majority of the board.”
“I don’t agree with all of these,” Jones said.
Board member Gary Hanger concurred. “I feel you’re being very presumptuous.”
Tucker apologized for presenting the resolution to the board at the last minute. “I based the resolution on opinions expressed at past board meetings,” he explained. The board could choose not to accept the resolution or amend it, Tucker said.
Board member Christine Hopkins reiterated concerns about “disruption” during the renovation process. “My first choice would be two new schools, but without a major property tax increase, the county can’t afford it,” Hopkins said. She emphasized the need to find “a central location” for the consolidated school if the board voted in favor of that option.
The other two options before the board were renovating the middle schools, cost of $35–$37 million, and building two new middle schools, cost $48–$52 million.”
Board Chair Cleijo Walker said the issue has posed “a very difficult decision for me. In a perfect world I’d vote for two schools. But I can’t see spending $30 plus million to make the two buildings livable. We want more than livable.”
An unwavering supporter of two schools, Jones said, “I’ve talked to administrators, teachers and students. They don’t want a big building. They want to keep their communities. The majority of the respondents to the surveys said, ‘let the children stay in the middle school they’re in now.’” Jones acknowledged, though, response to the surveys was low.
Hanger said he was “struck by the apathy and lack of phone calls from constituents.” Other board members expressed similar sentiments.
“I have the same concerns as Adam Tucker,” said Lonas. “With a single consolidated school we can offer the programming we’re not currently offering. To have students ready for high school, we need to consolidate.”
“I’d like to put this off to next month, so I can have time to think about it before voting,” Hanger said.
“We’ll miss the county commission budget cycle if we postpone the vote,” said board member Lance Williams.
In the roll call vote that followed, only Jones voted against the resolution.
Among the highlights of the budget proposed by Lonas was a $650,000 decrease in revenue. This was due largely to a $205,000 decrease in state funding because of a drop in enrollment, and a $215,000 decrease in Special Education and Title programs funding resulting from a new method of calculating economically disadvantaged students.
Under expenses, big ticket items included $330,000 for teachers salaries in keeping with the 2 percent annual raise and step increases approved by the board; $275,000 for textbooks, which will make Chromebooks available to all students in grades nine through 12; a $207,000 increase in health insurance costs; an additional $220,000 for Special Education; and an additional $130,000 for Career and Technical Education programs.
In related business, the board approved the budget for the summer Extended School Program (ESP) which calls for raising the cost for participating students 10 percent to $80 per week per child. “I think it’s a bargain,” said Walker, pointing out that in addition to enrichment activities participating students received breakfast, lunch, and a snack. The additional revenue will fund raising the directors’ pay from minimum wage to $8 per hour.
Four schools will serve as ESP sites—Clark Memorial Elementary, Decherd Elementary, North Lake Elementary and Sewanee Elementary—with transportation offered from other elementary schools to the ESP locations.
The board meets next on Monday, June 5 for a work session.