The Bulloch County Board of Education took its first official, although preliminary, step Thursday toward building a new, larger Southeast Bulloch High School. Members voted 6-2 to modify the school district’s five-year facilities plan to add the new school and repurpose two existing schools.
Superintendent Charles Wilson formally recommended this strategy, which he and Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Troy Brown set out in March and April, for handling population and enrollment growth in the Southeast Bulloch area. There was no further public discussion, only his recap and the vote, during Thursday’s 6:30 p.m. regular meeting, which lasted just 14 minutes.
Amending the five-year facilities plan was a preliminary step but a necessary one, Wilson said in a phone interview before the meeting and a follow-up email Monday.
“That means we will proceed with updating the plan to include the Southeast Bulloch School concept previously discussed and recapped at the board meeting,” he wrote Monday. “Once we have the plan updated, we will bring it back to the board for approval.”
The local board’s go-ahead positions the school system to seek Georgia Department of Education approval for “capital outlay” funding through which the state will pay a portion of the construction costs. Approval will also be needed for a yet to-be-determined site for the new school, he noted.
Wilson and his staff sought this preliminary approval so they would not go through the process of revising the facilities plan in detail only to find out the board was not willing to support it.
“So it is a preliminary step, but it’s a transparent, intentional step,” he had said Thursday.
A 1,600-student high school will probably cost $50 million to $60 million to build, Brown and Wilson suggested in March. But their strategy seeks to eliminate construction costs for some additions to schools by repurposing two existing facilities.
The current 1,227 -student Southeast Bulloch High School complex would become the new home of Southeast Bulloch Middle School, while the current middle school building would become a new “Southeast Bulloch Upper Elementary School” for fourth- and fifth-graders.
This will leave the Brooklet, Nevils and Stilson elementary schools, which now include prekindergarten through fifth grade, with just Pre-K through third grade, freeing up space for more students at each level.
District 1 Board of Education member Glenn Womack made Thursday’s motion, seconded by District 3 member Stuart Tedders, Ph.D., to amend the facilities plan as Wilson recommended. They were joined by board Chairman Mike Sparks of District 2, District 5’s Glennera Martin, District 6’s Jimmy “Jay” Cook Jr., and District 7’s Heather Mims in voting “yes.” The “no” votes were cast by April Newkirk of District 4 and Maurice Hill of District 8.
During previous meetings, Tedders requested any available information about potential effects, “pro and con,” of dividing the elementary grades into grades K-3 schools and a grades 4-5 upper elementary school.
After receiving some information from Wilson and doing some informal research of his own, Tedders did not find any significant adverse effect, he said in a phone interview Monday.
“When I looked at the pros and cons, I really didn’t see any cons other than maybe some logistical aspects,” Tedders said. “I did not see anything that led me to believe that this would have a negative impact on student learning or a negative impact on a student transitioning from school to school much quicker.”
He had also said he was not necessarily opposed to the strategy of building a high school and repurposing the other schools.
“So I considered all of that in the context of some of the real pressures that we’re facing in the southeast part of the county,” Tedders said Monday. “I decided the prudent thing to do would be to vote in favor of moving this forward.”
Newkirk has advocated building a new elementary school and redrawing attendance zones. In previous meetings, she noted that a high school is more expensive to build. Hill, the longest-serving board member, had said that the board and administrators have put off redrawing zones for many years while saying that this is needed.
As a side effect of Wilson’s proposal, another issue has arisen regarding plans to build athletic fields complexes at three middle schools. The school district is seeking new bids, due June 10, for construction of the Langston Chapel Middle School and William James Middle School athletic complexes but has temporarily withheld action on the Southeast Bulloch Middle School sports complex.
“One of our next steps will be to decide what to do about the SBMS athletics facilities,” Wilson emailed Monday. “In our updated plans, the middle school will inherit much, if not all of, the current high school facilities. That being said, we will need to come up with a short term plan for SBMS to serve their needs until the transition can occur.”
About $8 million for the new high school is expected to come from state capital outlay and about $7 million more from current Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue that will no longer be needed for school additions. For the remainder of the cost, Bulloch County voter approval in a referendum would be required to extend the E-SPLOST beyond its December 2023 endpoint.
The board made its preliminary decision two weeks after an April 30 deadline Brown and Wilson had suggested should be met for a school to be built in time to open in August 2024.
“As far as the timeline goes, we plan to be intentional and move forward as quickly and reasonably possible, but we are not able to guarantee a school start date; we are just too early in the stages to know anything for sure,” Wilson wrote Monday.