Superintendent Charles Wilson and staff will seek new construction bids for athletic complexes for the William James and Langston Chapel middle schools — but not at the moment for Southeast Bulloch Middle School — while the Board of Education decides whether to build a new Southeast Bulloch High School.
As of Thursday night, some board members remained unconvinced of Wilson's tentative proposal of a new high school as the keystone of a strategy for handling population growth in the Southeast Bulloch zone.
Because the strategy would repurpose the current Southeast Bulloch High School building and campus as the new location of Southeast Bulloch Middle School, the middle school would get the current high school sports facilities. Meanwhile, the current middle school building and campus would become a new entity, "Southeast Bulloch Upper Elementary School" for fourth and fifth grades. So it would not need new athletic facilities previously planned for land purchased in 2019 beside the current middle school.
"We're going to move forward with the William James and Langston Chapel Middle School athletic facilities bids," Wilson said after Thursday's board meeting. "That doesn't mean we're not going to do the one at Southeast Bulloch Middle School. It really means that I am separating all three of them from each other and we'll move forward with the two, William James and Langston, now, and my comment to the board was I think it would be prudent for us to decide what we are going to do with Southeast Bulloch High School before we make a decision about Southeast Bulloch Middle School's athletic facilities."
By receiving fourth- and fifth-grade students from throughout the southeastern portion of Bulloch County, the suggested "upper elementary" would leave the existing Brooklet, Nevils and Stilson elementary schools each with prekindergarten through third grade. So, by adding one school and shifting grades, the plan would create additional capacity at all levels.
Seeks pros and cons
But District 3 Board of Education member Stuart Tedders, Ph.D., had previously expressed concern about factors such as how a transition to a new school between third and fourth grades might affect children. After receiving some information from staff about the pros and cons of an upper elementary school, Tedders remained unconvinced, he said during Thursday's meeting.
"I'm still a little bit ambivalent about it. …," Tedders said. "I found that it was a little thin in terms of being good feedback about what the pros and cons are. I'm not suggesting I'm necessarily against it. I do want some more time to process this."
District 4's April Newkirk remained the most outspoken of the eight board members in her reservations about building a new Southeast Bulloch High.
"I still am just not 100 percent on board," Newkirk said. "I still feel like an elementary school and redistricting is where we need to go. I still feel like that is where our main concern needs to be."
With new residential subdivisions being planned and built out, many of the residents will be young families with children, she observed.
Wilson has acknowledged that a high school is more expensive to build than an elementary school, but he also notes that a new elementary school would add capacity only in the elementary grades and would require a new attendance zone. He and Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Troy Brown suggested in March that a new 1,600-student high school would probably cost $50 million to $60 million.
But their concept would leave the Brooklet, Nevils and Stilson attendance zones intact through third grade, beyond which their students would go on to the shared upper elementary.
Newkirk she said she knows that rezoning for a new kindergarten through fifth-grade elementary school would be controversial, but she has concerns about how long fourth- and fifth-graders would have to ride buses to the upper elementary and believes there were reasons for making all of the elementary schools K-5 schools years ago.
'Can't keep punting'
Thursday, Newkirk also got ahead of Wilson's suggestion for the middle grades athletic facilities by insisting that these projects should move forward at all three schools. She said she had been talking to Board of Education Chair Mike Sparks about this for months and had mentioned it to Wilson. Sparks was absent Thursday, so Vice Chair Heather Mims presided.
"We've got to do something; we can't keep punting it down the road," Newkirk said. "We have got to bid out these middle school facilities and we've got to get construction started on them, and I could spend a lot of time talking about a lot of things with these middle school facilities, things that I personally have witnessed, things that I think are unfair."
Among other things, she suggested that the school system needs a new and better working relationship with the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department over the schools' and parks department's shared use of each other's facilities.
District 8 school board member Maurice Hill said he thought the bid process for the athletic facilities had been put on hold a year ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic and asked why wait any longer.
"What are we waiting for? I guess that is the question. …," Hill said. "It seems like we're caught in the middle of 'Yes, we can build a school,' or 'Well, maybe do we need this right now, can we hold off a couple more years?'"
In fact, the school system previously took bids for all three middle school athletic complexes on March 3, 2020. But with only two companies bidding, the cost was higher than expected, and the school district declined both.
That was after a previous effort to limit the costs of the first phase of the athletic facilities to within the funding available from the current Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
Back in August 2018, projected costs of Phase I of the three projects totaled more than $9 million.
At that time, plans for the SEB Middle School sports complex were said to be limited by the available land. But in March and April 2019, the board approved two separate purchases, with a combined cost of roughly $313,562, of tracts totaling about 25 acres adjoining the campus.
When Newkirk asked what the board will do with this property if it is not used for the middle school complex, Wilson said it has investment value. She initially objected to his intention to hold off on the SEB Middle School athletics bid.
Out for bids Monday
After Wilson said the pause would be temporary pending a decision, Newkirk said she accepted this approach if a decision can be made in a month or so. But she had noted that the planning and construction of a new high school could leave SEB Middle without improved sports facilities for several years.
Wilson instructed Brown to move forward with the renewed LCMS and WJMS athletic complex Phase I bid process. Friday, Brown said the school system will be advertising for bids beginning Monday, with a due date of June 10. Construction would take about a year, for an expected completion date of July 1, 2022, he said.
This phase will include baseball and softball fields, football fields also usable for soccer, tennis courts, a concession and restroom building, concrete walks, asphalt drives and parking lots at each school.