Future of county's middle schools a topic at joint meeting
The issue of whether to build a new school came up while the group was addressing infrastructure issues at the schools amid declining student enrollment.
The math is pretty straightforward: The number of students in the county’s public schools is expected to drop to around 1,660 by 2021 – the number is currently around 1,900. The cost of maintaining the county’s aging schools is only going to increase.
Dr. Chad Calhoun, assistant superintendent, said declining enrollment is not a result of lower birth rates in the county, instead saying the losses span grade levels. In 2000, enrollment was 2,400.
When it comes to maintenance, Harris Middle School in Spruce Pine, along with the high school, are in the most “dire need,” according to Vern Grindstaff, chairman of the board of commissioners, who went on a tour of the schools with soon-to-be superintendent Calhoun.
Harris’ auditorium, which is currently unused, needs at least $5,000 in mandated repairs, and a full renovation could cost up to $125,000, according to Calhoun. The school’s football field needs tens of thousands of dollars of work – a stream that runs under the field is causing structural problems.
Every school in the county has needs, but the money isn’t there to handle all of them. The district’s capital-needs budget for the upcoming fiscal year will be approximately $500,000.
The question is whether to continue paying for repairs at Harris or find the money to build a new middle school – one that could potentially serve the entire county in the future. Commissioner Joe Street said the boards need to look hard at the idea of having one middle school to serve the county.
A 2012 study gave three options for how the school system could address declining enrollment and infrastructure needs. At the time, the school board chose the option that was the least expensive.
The option included closing Tipton Hill and Buladean schools and moving those students to Gouge and Bowman. It also called for $15 million in renovations to Gouge, Deyton, Harris and the high school.
The disadvantage of that option, according to the study, was that it “does not address long-term issues with using Bowman, Deyton and Harris facilities necessitating the need to replace these facilities within 10 years.”
Another option in the study suggested the district either build two new middle schools to replace Bowman and Harris or build one middle school in Ledger to serve the county. The third option included expanding the high school to accommodate grades 7 and 8 at a cost of $10 million. In that case, Harris would’ve been closed and Bowman would serve grades 4-6.
The estimated cost of one new middle school in Ledger was $22 million, according to the study. The cost for two new schools was $26 million. Both options also included major renovations at the high and elementary schools.
The closure of Tipton Hill and Buladean schools in 2012 brought with it the wrath of residents in the northern part of the county. Street described the outrage by saying that board members “all almost got hung because of it.” But he also said it was the right decision.
Commissioner Bill Slagle said board members may need to be “bold enough” to take out a bond to fund a new middle school in Spruce Pine. No final decisions were made, but the topic is one the school board will revisit during its upcoming budget discussions.
Greenlee Primary School, at 16 years old, is the newest school in the county. It cost $7 million to build.
For the current fiscal year, Mitchell County schools have received $14 million from the state and $1.2 million in federal funds. Local funding totaled $3.6 million. Teacher salaries are the biggest expense, totaling more than $5.8 million.
Calhoun said he has already cut $200,000 from next year’s budget through staff reductions handled through retirements, transfers and reassignment of duties.
The school board has a budget planning session scheduled for April 26.