The Bulloch County Board of Education accepted a state grant Thursday that will pay 80 percent of roughly $1 million worth of repairs and renovations on the portion of the old Julia P. Bryant School used by the Cedarwood GNETS program.
However, the Statesboro Cedarwood school serves students with severe emotional and behavior disorders mainly from three counties, Candler, Evans and Bulloch, plus two students from Jenkins County. The building has a leaky roof, peeling paint and windows, doors and restrooms that predate current standards. With the Georgia Department of Education expected to pay $807,612, Bulloch board members said they want other counties to pay a proportional share of the $219,272 expected local costs.
Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson agreed to talk to leaders of the other school districts but said that if Bulloch County had to go its own way, it would face greater costs serving its students with these special needs in the regular schools.
He apologized to board members for the timing of the decision. Administrators had known of the offered state grant since mid-August, he said, but it was added to the agenda only during the meeting Thursday evening, and state Education Department officials wanted an answer the next day.
Wilson meant to include the information in board members’ packets the previous week, and the multi-day Tropical Storm Irma closure had intervened, he said. But he agreed that they could have been informed earlier.
“I’ll take full responsibility for that. We minimize those kinds of errors, but it happens sometimes,” Wilson said. “But the real issue here before us is the needs of our students. … If we either repair the roof over there for our own benefit or if we have to push our own students back into our schools, I will tell you the ongoing costs for this will outpace the one-time capital costs within a couple of years if not the first year.”
The roof of the classroom wing used by Cedarwood is a major concern and by itself could present a $200,000 to $300,000 local cost in the absence of the grant, school system Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown told the board.
“The roof of that building is in great disrepair and will need attention very soon,” Brown said. “They have been doing a lot of patching on that roof, and the patching probably isn’t going to be able to be patched too much longer.”
The grant follows pressure from the state on school districts to upgrade Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS, buildings after a Georgia Department of Education assessment found that a number of them are not up to standards, Wilson said.
More than a roof
Planned renovations include reroofing the old school’s “B wing,” which is the one classroom wing used by Cedarwood, plus replacement of stained ceiling tiles, fire alarm equipment and exit lighting and the heating and air-conditioning system. The restrooms and exits will be upgraded to make them Americans with Disabilities Act compliant, windows and exterior doors will be replaced, sidewalks repaired and painting done inside and outside the building.
Of about 45 students currently schooled at Cedarwood GNETS program in Statesboro, 29 are from Bulloch County, said Leslie Schlierf, Bulloch County Schools’ special education director.
District 4 Board of Education member Steve Hein, saying the costs should be proportional, suggested that the other counties together might be asked to pay about one-third of the $219,000 estimated local cost of the renovations. But after discussion, he said this shouldn’t be a bar to accepting the grant.
“That’s the amount, the way I’m looking at it, that I’m really grappling with, whether we’re having to pick up $66,000 or $70,000 … that should be absorbed by adjoining counties,” Hein said. “Whatever that number is, 70,000, against a million, is something I can live with, especially if there’s a way of recapturing that through a fee.”
Noting that she had visited the Cedarwood school, District 5 member Glennera Martin said that returning the students to their regular schools would be difficult for them and the schools, which would have to supply special services and deal with disruptions.
“It would probably be very difficult for those students to make the adjustment into this school system out here,” Martin said.
Made at the start of the discussion, a motion by Hein, seconded by Tedders, to accept the grant passed 8-0.
One of 24 regional programs that make up the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, Cedarwood GNETS operates schools in Jesup, Lyons and Statesboro. Together, they serve high-needs special education students from Appling, Bulloch, Candler, Evans, Jeff Davis, Tattnall, Toombs and Wayne counties and Vidalia’s city school district.
But the Statesboro school now serves two students from Jenkins County, as well as the larger number of students from Bulloch, Candler and Evans counties, said Cedarwood GNETS regional Program Director Whitney Braddock. Her office is also in the old school on Donnie Simmons Way near the current Julia P. Bryant Elementary School.
The grant cannot be used on other portions of the old school, which are used by Statesboro Food Bank, the Morning Outreach Program and other agencies, but only on those used by Cedarwood GNETS, officials said. Cedarwood uses six classrooms for classes and other rooms in the central wing for office, meeting and counseling spaces. Rooms there are serve as the program’s dining area, but meals are prepared at the new JPB Elementary School’s kitchen and brought over in insulated containers.
The program also uses the old school’s gym during school hours, and the Cedarwood GNETS regional office occupies the media center.
Each county school district provides transportation for its own students, but the other counties do not contribute to the building’s upkeep, Braddock confirmed. The school districts also provide services of school psychologists.
Cedarwood employs six teachers, six paraprofessionals and a full-time behavior specialist at the Statesboro site. Cedarwood GNETS also contracts with a counseling service for a part-time counselor and has a social worker on its staff.
Some students receive visits from counselors assigned to them by other agencies.
“We’re very happy in this building,” Braddock said. “We really appreciate Bulloch County providing it for the other counties and the services that our students need. They’re here because they do have severe emotional and behavioral disorders. We’re able to provide them those services in this building.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.