Bibb schools to revise sales tax budget as facilities plan is underway

jmink@macon.comApril 20, 2014 

Bibb school leaders are putting into motion their new facilities plan, as they pave the way for another new school and look to change some funding priorities.

As enrollment continues to dip, the school board recently approved a new five-year facilities plan, which calls for the closure and merger of some schools. The new plan not only changes the face of some schools, but it changes the way the 2010 education local option sales tax funds will be used. The school board gave tentative approval Thursday to the E-SPLOST revisions, which reallocate more than $30 million that formerly was budgeted for two new elementary schools.

The old plan called for the construction of five new elementary schools, but the new plan eliminates the need for two of those schools due to a decline in enrollment.

Officials still plan to build new schools for Heard Elementary and new schools at the King-Danforth and Morgan elementary sites. The $16 million new Heard Elementary is expected to open in January. Construction is expected to begin soon on the new school at King-Danforth, and the school board is expected to vote about February on a new school at the Morgan Elementary site.

“We don’t need five; we need to build three,” Interim Superintendent Steve Smith told The Telegraph. “And in most cases, they will be merging two elementary schools and replacing older, outdated schools with newer, state-of-the-art schools.”

Under the E-SPLOST revisions, the money that would have been spent on two schools will go toward technology upgrades, school renovations and other projects. The total project costs have been reduced by about $5.2 million in the revised budget, according to information from facilities director Jason Daniel.

School officials plan to hold a community forum in early May to discuss the E-SPLOST revisions, Smith said. Among the new items in the proposed revision is $7 million for any future land or facility acquisition. The revision also includes $1 million to convert the Bloomfield Middle School building into an elementary school as part of the facilities plan, and a total of $3.5 million for 15 new classrooms at Carter Elementary and 10 new classrooms at Heritage Elementary.

During a recent school board meeting, board member Ella Carter questioned whether those new classrooms would be necessary as enrollment declines. Enrollment in Bibb schools has been dropping about 1.5 percent per year, and that rate is predicted to jump to as much as 4 percent next year as two charter schools are slated to open.

The $3.5 million for classroom additions is included simply in case those schools need it, Smith said. If the extra room is unnecessary, that money would be reallocated to other projects, he said.

A revised total of $23 million would fund technology upgrades -- that’s about $3 million more compared with the original budget, which is essential to the school district, Smith said. The school system has “severe technology needs,” and the E-SPLOST funds will allow school officials to replace outdated computers, a majority of which are about 8 years old.

The revised budget also includes $500,000 to restructure the Welcome Center to include larger meeting space, a heritage area and professional learning and human resources offices.

Additionally, a total of about $8 million would be spent on renovations at Bernd, Riley and Porter elementary schools.

Some schools to remain open, some to close

Bernd Elementary technically is scheduled to be phased out in the new facilities document, but school leaders intend to keep that school open and monitor enrollment over the next five years. The school board voted Thursday to officially keep Riley and Porter elementary schools open. Both were scheduled to close under a previous facilities plan.

Other schools, however, are planned to close and merge as the system looks to save money, manage enrollment dips and operate larger elementary schools.

“The real benefit is that larger schools are more efficient to operate. It costs less money to operate a school of 750 than schools of roughly 375 each. So there’s a cost savings there,” Smith said, adding that a state analysis shows achievement is better in larger schools. “You get more teachers and more students under one roof, so you get school improvement that will be more consistent.”

The plan calls for the merger of King-Danforth and Jones elementary; Morgan and Barden elementary; Rice and Burghard elementary, and, if all goes as planned, Bloomfield and Ballard-Hudson middle.

Still, every individual closure and new school must receive board approval, and the school board already has approved construction of a new school at King-Danforth.

Board members approved the location for the new $16 million school, as well as SP Design Group as the project architect, and the closure of King-Danforth Elementary School. The new school is expected to open in August 2015.

To make way for the new school, the old Danforth Primary School will be demolished. The current King-Danforth building would be demolished after the new building is constructed.

Additionally, Jones Elementary is slated to close and move into the new building alongside King Danforth students. Outside organizations, such as Head Start programs and charter schools, might be interested in the Jones building, Smith said.

The board also recently voted to close Burghard Elementary School, and next school year will be the last year Burghard is used as a regular elementary school. When school begins in August 2015, the building will house the alternative school program for elementary, middle and high school students, Smith said.

In the meantime, Burghard would merge with Rice Elementary in the Bloomfield Middle School building, while Bloomfield Middle merges into the Ballard-Hudson Middle School building.

The school zones for Rice and Burghard intersect at the Bloomfield Middle building, making the facility ideal to house the new elementary school. Meanwhile, both Bloomfield and Ballard-Hudson middle schools are halfway occupied, Smith said.

When the decision was made to build Bloomfield Middle, “I don’t think the school board at the time realized we would have a declining population over the next several years,” he said.

The old Rice Elementary building would then be used to house Morgan Elementary during the 2015-2016 school year, while workers construct a new school at the current Morgan site. The plan is for Morgan and Barden elementary schools to then merge into the new building.

When school leaders were developing the plan to consolidate Morgan and Barden, they felt that Barden’s location was undesirable, mainly because it is at a busy intersection, Smith said.

While school leaders already have a jump start on the new facilities plan, it is simply a guideline and is subject to change, officials said.

“This is not set in stone,” school board President Susan Sipe said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 744-4331.

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