​Why Two Middle Schools, Why Now

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

The Thursday before the Jan. 15 County Commission vote on funding for two new middle schools, South Middle School (SMS) Assistant Principal Holly Eslick met with community members at Sewanee Elementary to talk about why a “yes” vote was so desperately needed. The Sewanee Parents Organization sponsored the event.
Leaking roofs top the problem list at the 52-year-old schools, Eslick said. Lacking sufficient receptacles to catch the water, teachers and administrators take up mops. The students shrug and say, "We’re used to it."
Thousands of dollars spent on the roofs have failed to eliminate the problem, which results from obstructed drains at the expansion joints between the pods, Eslick explained. Correcting the problem would require “ripping out everything,” and the problem would recur since the root cause is the connected-pod design.
Mold proliferates inside the schools. “Just looking at it makes your lungs hurt,” Eslick conceded expressing special concern for “fragile” special needs students. Two SMS teachers have been diagnosed with chronic pulmonary lung disease according to special education teacher Ruth Jordan.
The school system has spent $1.3 million on routine maintenance at the schools since 2009. Replacement and repair parts for the 1960s heating and air conditioning units are no longer available. The gyms have no air conditioning.
The schools have an excessive number of entrance doors—40 at SMS—creating a security risk by making it easy for outsiders to infiltrate the schools. In the design for the new schools, classrooms can only be accessed from within the building and a sprinkler system eliminates the need for fire escape doors.
Attempting to meet 21st century computer age standards, exposed wires run along the ceilings and teachers string together extension cords resulting in citation by the fire marshal.
There are no rooms for art instruction, technology labs, and individual musical instrument practice, and no rooms for ESL and speech therapy classes.
Currently only SMS offers Comprehensive Development Classes forcing many special needs students to travel long distances to attend school.
Excessively long travel would become the norm for far more students if the county addressed the middle school crisis by building a single middle school, County Commissioner Johnny Hughes stressed. “It’s a big county.”
“We already have kids that are exhausted by the time they get to school,” Eslick agreed.
Hughes argued parents’ increased transportation costs in a one school scenario could exceed the small property tax increase they’ll pay in a two-schools scenario—$27 on a $100,000 home.
Speaking in favor of the smaller school environment, Eslick said, “We’re people to the kids, not just a figure or a title. Kids are comfortable talking with us.”
Hughes pointed out that smaller schools also offered more opportunities for students to participate in activities like team sports and band where limited spots were available.
Acknowledging that maintaining one school would cost less, District 5, Seat B County Commissioner Helen Stapleton asked, “Are we going to do it the cheapest way or do what’s best for our kids?”
“We can’t afford to wait,” Eslick said. “The cost of construction will increase, and we’ll end up putting band-aids on band-aids just to survive the next couple years.”